White balance

Canberra gets cold, because it’s inland, elevated (just shy of 600 metres) and sits in a valley (which means cold are can tend to hang around). It snows, occasionally; mostly it melts as it lands; very rarely it will snow enough to lie on the ground for a while. The first time I experienced snow in Canberra I embarrassed myself by asking my more acclimated friends why the rain was falling in squiggles. They laughed. But I didn’t recognise what I was seeing as snow – not because I grew up in Perth (where it has not snowed this geological epoch, and snow anywhere in the state is headline news) but because the only time I had seen snow – in Ireland and England – it was heavy, thick, and unmistakable for anything else. Not like the anaemic fluff I saw drifting from the sky one Saturday afternoon in Civic.

On another occasion some other chums decided on a drive to a nearby national park, in the hills south of Canberra. As we turned off the main road I said “It’s been snowing.” How could I tell, my friends asked. How would I know, coming from the dusty sunny west? I can smell it, I said, and I meant it – fresh snow has a distinct aroma. The chums expressed doubt, based solely on me coming from the west coast – but as we climbed the hill, there it was: clumps of snow piled up at the side of the road, or hiding under trees. That was the first time I saw gum trees in snow. I saw kangaroos in snow – and experienced a moment of profound cognitive dissonance: these things do not belong together. But there they were.

ScribbleNot a snow gum

There are Australian animals – kangaroos and emus among them – that don’t mind a bit of snow, but none of them are so used to it that they grow a winter coat. But then they don’t have to worry about large predators …

ClawThe only real hazard

The Canberra region gets only an occasional dusting. Nearby, though,  are what passes, in Australia, for mountains, and some of the only reliable snowfields in the country. ‘Reliable’, in this case, means that most years the ski resorts have to resort to snowmaking to be sure they can offer a decent run. Not this year: after a dry start there have been actual blizzards in the Snowy Mountains (for so they are named). That’s a good enough excuse for a visit, and pictures.

For some people in some parts of the world the idea of a day trip to the snow would be strange. Snow doesn’t require a trip, or any kind of effort, and it’s not that special: it’s just there. Clogging the driveway, perhaps. But hey, this planet has a southern hemisphere, too, and we get everything backwards.

Heading to the snow means a nice drive at a nice time of year – south along the border of the ACT, and down to Cooma, the countryside green in a way that only seems to happen for a narrow window of time in Australia. There are fluffy sheep and reasonably happy-looking cows, though none of them showing the same fat health I saw in New Zealand last year. There is also roadside art of odd sorts in odd places: the weird Christmas Village in Bredbo; a giant metal ball just outside Cooma that looks like the start or end of a titanic knitting project – all going by too fast for pictures. And then it’s off the highway and up the hills to Jindabyne. A nice spot, and worth a stop – because, alas, beyond that, it’s all about the skiing: Thredbo, Perisher Valley and the other mountain towns are all lodge accommodation and overpriced eateries: the towns have no centre to speak of and little to recommend them beyond the setting. They have been trying – with some success – to become summer destinations, but they depend a lot on the snow trade. This year’s bumper falls notwithstanding, it’s an unpredictable boon, and there are many who believe the days of the Australian ski resorts are numbered.While they last, though, the towns are a magnet for tourists from New South Wales and elsewhere, for school ski trips – bizarre concept, see remarks above re Perth – from all over, and for instructors and snow bunnies of all stripes looking for somewhere to hang out in the northern hemisphere summer.

MereJust below the Overlook Hotel

Heading up out of Jindabyne it started snowing, heavily. Chain weather – another thing I’ve never before encountered in Australia, and heavens can you tell when a car driving past has them fitted wrong. The snow fell thick, and almost horizontal, pushed by a heavy wind. On the dashboard the outside temperature showed 9 degrees … six … and then zero, where it stayed for most of the rest of the day.

We stopped at both Thredbo and Perisher, had some lunch, took some pictures, stood out on account of lack of ski-related clothing – and possibly, in my case, for my lack of a hat, not a mistake I’ll make again. Both resorts were very crowded, because of the excellent conditions. There were better excuses for photos out of town.

For myself I’ve never understood why, if you want to go skiing at this time of year (not my thing), you wouldn’t head off the New Zealand. Given Australian prices it’s probably no more expensive to fly across the ditch for a week in Queenstown …

TrailBecause even in Australia, a clean sheet of snow has to be stomped through

That said … if there was somewhere in those hills you could stay, with decent food and no loonies in lycra … well, it would be a good spot for a quiet weekend.

The sun came out, late in the day, but not for ling. By the time we turned back for home snow had fallen heavily well below where we’d first seen it, slowing down the traffic to what I thought was a sensible speed. Other people … people with, it should be obvious, not a lot of experience driving in such conditions … not so much. Still: home in once piece: coffee, Thai food, and a chunk of ice falling out of the hood of my sweatshirt at an inopportune time.

Better than sand.

RockMore pictures from the snow.

 

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Uprooted

Moving house. Oh the joy.

I rent. There is a school of thought that says I should have bought a house or something ages ago (1997 would have been a good time); that I should be well on my way to owning it and doing all sorts of things with the capital inherent therein. But then there are also Nobel Prize winning economists who think renting rather than owning is just fine. That is, of course, an easy position to take when you’re a Nobel Prize winning economist: you’re probably not worried about where you’re going to live when you’re 70. Nonetheless, they will offer various arguments about why tying up too much of your own or a nation’s capital in property is a bad idea. Unspoken, mostly, is the idea that if you own a home, you have a strong incentive to stay in a given area, find work nearby, put your kids in a local school, ignore that splendid job opportunity somewhere else and generally fail to be a perfectly portable and interchangeable little economic unit.

I rent because I never really had that great clanging gong in my head, banging on about security and stability so go and buy a house dammit. A curse which seems to afflict some people very young. The best reasons I can think of to buy a place is floor-to-ceiling bookcases and putting picture hooks where I want them – but it has never been a high enough priority for me to work out a budget, start saving for a deposit, have serious conversations with banks …

Although truth be told, part of the reason I still rent is because I can’t afford to buy property anywhere I’d like to live – certainly not on my own – and I’m adamant about not living anywhere that would require me to buy a car to stay sane. Not even to get on the property ladder, own an asset, look nice for the bank and get some runs on the big scoreboard*.

In my experience, renting in Australia means behaving like a supplicant when you’re looking and like one of God’s fortunate souls when you’re in. Australian real estate agents seem to be unable to grasp the basic idea that you, as a tenant, are paying them for a service – the attitude is rather that they are doing you a favour. And that they’d rather not. I suspect this may be a common problem in other places.

What this means, of course, is living with the worry that you might get turfed out because the agents think they could get more rent from someone else, or because you ask just a little bit too much of them, or that you set fire to the carpet, or because they just don’t like you. Renting leaves you particularly vulnerable when you’re a student – so many agents and owners just won’t rent to students (I suspect this is another widespread problem) – or, heaven forbid, when you’re unemployed.

However … there are always exceptions. When I (happily) moved back to Canberra from Sydney in 2006 I found a nice place fairly quickly and easily – surprisingly so; competition for rental properties in Canberra is usually fierce any time of year – and ended up staying there almost eight years. The agents were great to deal with, especially in extremis (I got flooded. Nine floors up. Long story.). The owner was nice. The flat itself was comfortable roomy, and had great views – although it was rather exposed to the weather.

20140701-211447-76487532.jpg

I’d be there still, but for the owner deciding to sell. History suggests selling property in Canberra now is a good idea. History also suggests it’s a good time for me to think about buying … meh.

When I got the word I started looking and had immediate confirmation of what several people had told me: unusually, spectacularly, it’s a renters’ market in Canberra at the moment – mainly because of the economic and socially chilling effects of the relatively new government, but also because of some changes to the tax arrangements around investment properties, put in place by the previous government and likely to be overturned by the blue-bloods in the current one. Between this and a spate of apartment-building across Canberra, there are a lot of places available.

In the past, looking for rental properties in Canberra has meant queues, frustration, being treated like crap and occasionally missing out on a place because someone else outbid you on the rent (illegal, but it happens). Now it means a handful of people, being able to be picky, property managers being very pleasant and all rents being negotiable. As a result, I found somewhere nice, nearby, more than comparable to where I was, and cheaper. I’m back on the ground after more than a decade, and if I don’t have panoramic views I’m more than compensated by two lovely courtyards which will be a blessing when the weather warms up.

The actual move … okay, it was smooth, as these things go (mostly), but it is never easy. And it was very expensive: I moved about 200m, laterally – around two corners – but the process still cost $1600 because of the volume of stuff and ‘restricted access’ (an elevator) at the old place. Add bond, rent in advance, professional end-of-lease and carpet cleaners (compulsory) and the charges attached to switching over various services and the exercise becomes really expensive. More than $5000 out the door in a very short space of time.

I will keep that number in mind (or maybe something higher, imagining a partner and a couple of kids) the next time I hear some sage going on about workplace ‘flexibility’ reducing costs, removing conditions like relocation allowances, and how people should be prepared to just move where the jobs are …

In eight years the previous flat I accumulated furniture, books, DVDs, kitchenware, and various other kinds of crap. A spare room and lots of cupboards meant not a lot got thrown out – without a car it isn’t easy to pop down to the local bulk refuse or recycling centre.

IMG_0014  A bedroom’s worth of books, packed

Experience has taught me that when moving house it’s useful to hire a car for a few days to ferry fragile stuff around and to get rid of various things. SO I managed a trip to the recycling centre – and dropped off  three modems, a dead iBook, a functional G3 cube (dear lord, heavy!), stray cables, compact fluoros, an electric razor, a PS1, a PS2, games for both and an Apple Color StyleWriter2500 printer that was hiding in the box for the vacuum cleaner. I put two pairs of jeans, four pairs of shoes, a suitcase and various other things in the charity bins. And without any internal debate I disposed of relics of various girlfriends, including a 25+ year old wooden chopping board, still in use until last month (altogether: eewww). I have a lovely new one, from the local craft market.

I had to throw out, alas for lack of alternative, way too many plastic bags. My favourite clothing store has its critics, but at least it uses paper bags.

I managed to leave a few things behind, unintentionally: half the contents of the bathroom cabinet, everything under the kitchen sink, a few other odds and ends and sundry loose bits of Lego. All of this was recovered, but in the process of doing so I discovered a few other things had been left behind. By the movers. In the elevator.

IMG_0012This prompted a hasty and stern call to the company, after which I had to sit for two hours and watch my stuff – lamps, ironing board, bed for the spare room, outdoor furniture and my bike, dammit! – because the building was not secure (ironically because the building security was being upgraded). The movers came back, many apologies, emptied the elevator, more apologies, dropped off the stuff, more apologies (all the while I’m thinking ‘I tipped you guys!’).

I wrote to the company. I sent them the picture above. I said that nothing says sorry like a small refund. I was promised … something. I’m still waiting.

That little hiccup threw out my schedule for the afternoon, but for the first time in my working life I had access to moving house leave, two days of it, so I was able to go back to the old flat the following day and take care of a few stray things. And come back to the new one to do my famous impersonation of an exhausted heap.

And then – as mentioned – there were the cleaners, and the carpet cleaners, and the final inspection, and a wee embarrassment – for someone else, not me – over being charged for rent after I’d vacated. Hastily sorted out.

It’s all done now. I’ve moved. I’m in. I’m nowhere near fully unpacked but the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and laundry all work; I’m reconnected to the internet at the TV is back out of its box. Everything else can wait until the mood takes me …

IMG_0013Almost all the books, and a lot of the Lego

It would be nice not to have to do that again for another eight years. I don’t know how likely that is …


 

* This is how I think of it. An erstwhile colleague – who, at 22, was absolutely fixated on owning a home as soon as possible, to the exclusion of pursuits like travel, further education or developing a personality – was shocked to discover that at 40 (this was a while ago) I did not own a house, a car or a mobile phone (the last has changed). She asked me if I felt like a failure. I laughed.

Some people really do seem to treat life as if there’s a great big scoreboard toting up your assets, and the number at the bottom is all that matters.

Posted in Rants, Uncategorized, Unexpected developments | 1 Comment

With a will

Today is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Except … like a lot of things about Shakespeare, this is open to debate. His birth was registered at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon on – I think – the 26th of April 1564, and it’s likely he was born a few days before that. His death was recorded on 23 April 1616, 52 years later, and the symmetry of being born and dying on the same date has appealed to generations of Shakespeare-lovers, so the 23rd it is.

Holy Trinity, StratfordI had planned to be in Stratford for this anniversary. Plans change. There are, needless to say, grand shenanigans under way in Stratford and London and many other places. In fact the closeness of the anniversaries of his birth and death will set off what looks to be two years of celebrations around the world, including an ambitious plan to perform Hamlet in every country on the planet over the next two years.

RSC, Stratford, September 2012Ahh, Hamlet …

What is it about Shakespeare? where to start? I could go on about his influence on the English language, on theatre and drama … about how his works have been adapted and translated into many other languages and dramatic forms, into opera and ballet and kathakali and kabuki … into novels and comics and films and an astonishing amount of science fiction … how his works have been in an almost constant state of performance, adaptation, abuse, analysis, scholarship and dispute for more than 400 years … but that is all the stuff of (at least) a four year undergraduate degree (and I should know). But the thing is …

Shakespeare is ultimately personal. Everyone has an opinion about Shakespeare – as I found when writing an Honours dissertation on Hamlet at a time when yet another movie adaptation (Mel Gibson’s) had come out. As I have found in the course of meetings and formal dinners and casual conversations and random encounters on trains whenever I have been asked (in the past) “what do you do?” or (now and always, I think) “what is/was your doctorate on?”

Everyone has an opinion about Shakespeare, even if it’s that they don’t like or understand him, his plays, all the fuss. There’s always a story behind those negative opinions, and while those stories have many common elements (usually, bad teaching and an excess of reverence) they are all individual and personal. And first encounters matter.

I was lucky. My first encounter with Shakespeare was not at school, in a crowded curriculum with limited time and always, always, an emphasis on getting the ‘right’ answer. In twelve years of formal school education my sole encounter with Shakespeare was a one-page comic strip adaptation of The Tempest (a play I’ve been fond of ever since) on the back page of the old ‘Look and Learn‘ magazine. It did not leave me with any sense of an encounter with a giant of world literature.

The Tempest in Stratford, September 2012In my first year at university I needed a fourth unit to fill out my timetable. I was studying science; I’d enrolled for chemistry and maths and physics, but none of the other first year science units appealed to me. Not geology – the popular choice in a mining state – and definitely not biology (I’ve always avoided the squishy sciences). I looked at my other options and signed up for an ‘Introduction to English Literature’ course because I’d enjoyed English at school, always done well in the subject, and it looked like an easy four points.

It was a very conservative program, and taught in a conservative way. In first term we did the novel: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Huckleberry Finn and so on. In second term it was poetry, mainly Robert Frost and John Donne (my first taste of Renaissance English lit; it left me with an abiding affection for artful smuttiness of 16th century poets). In third term we studied drama: Ibsen’s Ghosts, Death of a Salesman, Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Also on the syllabus were two plays by Shakespeare: Twelfth Night and Macbeth. I approached this part of the course thinking – this guy’s 400 years dead, gotta be irrelevant, probably overrated …

I read Macbeth and – cliché, but true – my life was never the same.

The following year I got special permission to enrol in a unit that was all Renaissance English literature – as part of a science degree, remember. I met professors who inspired me in a way that chemistry and maths lecturers never did. I read far more, and more widely, than the course required. I saw my first play, Hamlet, and sat through it not entirely sure what was going on and thinking, frequently, “so this is where that line is from!” (Hamlet, a friend explained a few days later, is full of quotes.)

I finished the science degree – I am still interested in science and technology – but a couple of years later (after a brief and inglorious teaching career) I went back to university to enrol in an Arts degree – that’s humanities or liberal arts, depend on which side of the pond you’re on. I selected a program heavily focused on Renaissance lit and its antecedents, so there was some Classical and Medieval stuff in there. Lots of theatre from various periods. A little bit of 18th and 20th century literature, too (I liked the former more than the latter). But mainly Shakespeare. That led to Honours and a doctorate and all sorts of other things – but not a career as an academic. Ultimately, doing a doctorate on Shakespeare almost – thankfully almost – destroyed the pleasure I got from Shakespeare; I certainly didn’t want it to be my job.

Strolling player, Stratford, September 2012Side note here: I’ve had a more varied and interesting career after a doctorate on Shakespeare than I ever could have from a science degree. Just sayin’.

But. Why Shakespeare? Why did these 400-year-old plays and poems have such an impact on me, and on so many other people?

For me, it’s partly down to the language. I’ve always been fascinated by words and what they can do, how to use them, how to express myself, how to express myself better. I’ve had more than a few people say to me, after I answered those inevitable questions, “Oh, Shakespeare. That must be why you’re so good with words.” Alas, chums, it’s the other way ’round: it’s because I’m good with words that I’m so fascinated by Shakespeare – who played with language, invented new words, twisted old ones and helped turn a mongrel tongue into an instrument of art and diplomacy, politics and business. And science.

It’s also the ideas. It’s no exaggeration to say – even now, after the Atomic Age and the Space Age and the Information Age and into whatever Age we’re in now – that it’s all there. Life. Death. Love. Economic collapse. The impact of new technologies. Environmental management. Gender roles. God. The Laws of Motion and Thermodynamics. What to say to people at parties. You can find all of them in Shakespeare with no stretch.

It’s everything about being human, beautifully expressed. Shakespeare himself was gloriously human: a commoner; educated but not excessively; from a provincial market town rather than a major centre. Unhappily married, by some accounts, and with a life marked by the early deaths of a son and possibly a sister. He was a defendant in one legal case and a witness in another. He had some success as an investor and more as a writer. He retired to his home town a reasonably wealthy man , and died relatively young, even for that time. In his will he notoriously left his wife the second-best bed, and couldn’t spell his own name consistently. He has no living descendents, but there are many many people happy to trade on his name.

I said at the outset that many things about Shakespeare are open to dispute, and that includes the words he wrote. Some of his plays were printed in multiple editions during his lifetime (including a pirated version of Hamlet), with differences subtle and not. There’s endless scope for argument about those texts. Some of them were never printed before his death, and we rely on the single, supposedly authoritative version that appears in the First Folio – but even that leaves room for debate (starting with act and scene divisions, and working up to … everything).

Over time, and especially over the past couple of decades, various works have been newly attributed to him, in whole or in part, so what constitutes the Shakespeare ‘canon’ is also debatable – as is the order in which he wrote his plays and poems, and who he might have written them for or about.

Even if there was a fixed and unchanging body of work we could, with confidence, ascribe to Shakespeare, we would always find new things to say about him. Shakespeare might not change (although that is itself a rich subject for discussion), but we do. Everyone who reads Shakespeare’s works – or, even better, sees them performed – comes to them with their own experience, their own knowledge, their own life.

The Comedy of Errors at the Globe, August 2006No two people can see Hamlet the same way. No two performances are alike. A Hamlet performed now might draw on anything from the collapse of communism to the birth of the surveillance state (I have seen productions that did both, separately and together). In ten years’ time it would be something different – and if done properly, respectfully but not worshipfully, and with – let me be adamant about this – due attention to the damn words, it would still be lively and timely and thought-provoking. “There’s nothing good or bad,” says Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so” – and if that’s not relevant at a time when there are plenty of people willing to forcefully insist on their version of what’s right and what’s not, I don’t know what is.

Shakespeare seduced me with his words and ensnared me with his ideas. I’m not alone in thinking he might be surprised to learn that we are still reading and watching and arguing about his work 400 years after his death. He might even tell us we’re all wrong – but I suspect he’d be happy to stir the debate even more.

It’s not a debate that’s going to end any time soon. Not even a time machine could put a stop to it.

Fads and fashions and governments will come and go. Disputes about the place and role of Shakespeare in curricula, in theatre companies’ programs, in public funding and public life will go on. In a hundred years, people will still be arguing about Hamlet’s delay.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHappy birthday, Bill.

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Tomorrowland (Part 2)

I’m not fond of hot weather, so a visit to a city on the equator is not the most logical option for me. Going to Singapore was the result of a number of factors: the urging of friends, yes, plus the need for a quick break, a desire (to be honest) to indulge myself a little, curiosity, and the usual things that drive me to travel. Which things I have been thinking about lately, but more on that another time.

For now: more on a quick trip to the tropics.

Nice hotels in Singapore have good climate control, which means you don’t feel the pervasive humidity until you step outside. And then … oh boy. I kind of expected this, so I packed light for Singapore. I packed shorts. I allowed myself to be seen in public in shorts. So it really was a short trip.

Bad joke … this is worth mentioning, though, since my travel packing usually extends to shorts when I’m going to visit the family at Christmas. Although there was a trip to London, years ago, peak tourist season, when – with an Australian’s arrogance about such things – I underestimated what an English summer could throw at me. That trip could have used a few pairs of shorts …

Singapore positively requires shorts and linen shirts and light shoes and absolutely, definitely not a backpack. Eww.

It also requires a back-up memory card for the camera. Even for a short trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the remarkable and nice things I found about Singapore was that the extensive and very popular roads were almost always lined with plants. The greenery in Singapore is, unsurprisingly, lush and abundant; I don’t believe I saw a bare patch of ground anywhere. The roads are a tangle and the topography of the middle of the town can get pretty hilly, but there was no curb or culvert or retaining wall that hadn’t been colonised by some kind of plant. The growth was wild in some places, carefully tended in most others, and everywhere. Singapore is the greenest city I’ve visited, and that’s a good thing.

And then there are the planned gardens. On the Saturday of the trip I went off with the travelling companions to the relatively new Gardens by the Bay. They’re an example of what is, in my experience, a peculiarly Asian phenomenon: a large and expensive piece of somewhat impractical public infrastructure funded by (and in some ways an attempt at compensating for) the proceeds of gambling. As an impressionable lad I visited Ocean Park in Hong Kong, recently opened at that time. At twelve I was delighted with the idea that the local jockey club was prepared to build a marine park and gift it to the citizenry. I didn’t quite appreciate that it was the citizenry who were really paying for the whole thing, and I certainly had no idea of the obscene amounts of money gambling enterprises often have to play with. Or some of the reasons why they might need to turn loose cash into something less taxable.

Yes, it’s a noteworthy and generous gesture for casinos and turf clubs to pay for honkin’ big gardens and marine parks. However: like gambling itself, I can’t shake the notion that there are better things that could be done with the money.

Anyway.

The Gardens by the Bay are … amazing: all the usual botanical gardens stuff with Singaporean twists. There are sections of the gardens laid out in the styles of traditional gardens from each of the main ethnic and cultural groups on the island. There are enormous metal trees which provide an aerial view of the gardens and the city,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand in some places serve as the climate control system for the enclosed parts of the garden. Those enclosed areas are themselves astonishing: two enormous science-fictional domes: one containing flowering plants from around the world;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe other a miniature mountain, complete with waterfall, simulating the environment at a higher altitude than sea-level Singapore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoth are, no question, amazing, but if I have reservation about the experience it is that both the domes are peculiarly lifeless. Full of plants, yes; that’s the whole point. Both are, however, devoid of insect and bird life, and to me that just reinforced their artificiality. I thought the mountain dome in particular would have been a richer experience with some birds flitting around, making a mess.

After the gardens it was time for more established Singaporean pursuits: shopping, drinks at the Raffles, and an OTT meal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe last day in Singapore – a half-day, really, between checking out of the hotel and checking in for the flight home – we filled with a trip to the Jurong Bird Park. It’s not something I can recommend. I’m not a fan of caged animals as attractions, and caged birds even less so. Jurong has sights to offer, true, including another impressive artificial waterfall, but I can see more colourful birdlife in my local park. And Jurong seemed a little run down in places, it’s dowdiness reinforced by the decaying monorail that loops around the park. There are, I’m sure, nice things to do with a last few hours in Singapore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was, as I said, a quick trip, but a couple of days in Singapore left a distinct impression. I’m still not sure why my habitual travelling companions are so fond of the place, and given the money and inclination but limited time I would, in future, probably head off to New Zealand again.

Singapore felt driven and desperate and more than a little artificial. Yes, I visited a fake movie land and a carefully built and maintained garden and other unnatural environments, but the whole island – the whole city – is so constructed and controlled that it seems like a theme park. William Gibson called it “Disneyland with the death penalty“, and the city-state thanked him for the comparison by banning the publication. To me, though, Singapore didn’t feel like Disneyland – but perhaps like a part of it. Tomorrowland: a utopian vision of the future that might, in this case, prove a little more prescient than any Imagineer’s effort. Singapore is everything tomorrow promises to be: hot, crowded, overwhelmingly urban, and characterised by massive disparities on wealth and power. Delicately controlled. Multi-ethnic.

If we’re really lucky, the food will be good.

More photos from Singapore.

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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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