Still breathing.

Hello. It’s been while. So much has happened. I barely know where to start.

So I won’t.

Not here, anyway. Moving the whole show to

Because I changed my mind.

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Brick buy brick

From Berlin and its bicycles to Copenhagen and even more bicycles. So many bicycles …

Tegel Airport in Berlin is a dump and best avoided. It has all the characteristics of a regional terminal of the late 1970s, and none of the charm. In fact the only way that Tegel is an improvement on a 1970s regional terminal is that smoking is banned.

Tegel is the only airport I’ve ever been where people could take small dogs on to the plane. As long as they’re under 7kg and fit in a carrier. Or carry-on bag.

The flight to Copenhagen was brief and the ride from the airport into the city was deceptive, as it was almost the only road I saw around town that wasn’t swamped in bicycles. And I do not suggest that’s a negative thing. Quite the contrary: it was eye-opening. I got the impression that all the debates that go on in Australia about bikes and bike lanes and sharing roads just never happened in Denmark: the nation has embraced the bicycle in a way that only a very flat country can. Almost everyone owns a bike. People ride all year – even in the depths of cold and dark winters. Bikes are part of the house insurance; there is a healthy trade in stolen bikes but even so many of them are parked unlocked. All the hotels offer bikes for guests. Roads are wide, and have separate – and often separated – bike lanes, and bikes have right of way. Eminently sensible.

I saw few people in Lycra and few high-end carbon-fibre knubbly-tyred hybrid bikes such as are common in Australia. Most of the bikes I saw were simple, had few gears, and in many cases were obviously older than the person riding them. I noticed similar differences – to Australia – in the bike-riding population in Berlin … but there were so many more of them in Copenhagen.

Amazing. I want to take the people who debate about bikes on road in Australia – those pro- and con – show them Denmark and say “See? They made it work. It’s possible.” And maybe smack them around the head a little in a supportive manner.

Alas, Copenhagen struck me otherwise as a little grey, and lacking in vegetables. I did manage a pilgrimage to the Lego store, where I bought a little something.


The world’s biggest tyre maker

And I did a little bit of roaming around. It was a short visit, though, mainly about catching up with some relatives. Even so, I did manage to get out of town on the excellent Grand Day Trip. This involves small groups – about 15 – excellent guides and four sights in three locations, all about an hour from Copenhagen. Definitely worth it.

I felt no temptation to correct any of the strange things the guide said about Hamlet on the way to Helsingør and Kronborg Castle (which, alas, we got to a little too late to explore fully).


Let all the battlements their ordnance fire

I didn’t find Copenhagen as picturesque as Prague or as stimulating as Berlin. I’m sure it has its charms and it probably takes more than three days to appreciate them. I didn’t get the chance, for example, to take in the Tivoli Gardens (and Billund Legoland was never an option). Copenhagen has nonetheless occupied a niche in my brain that puts it at he end of a train or driving trip north from Amsterdam …

Now there’s an idea.

Copenhagen Airport was much nicer and better organised than Tegel. The next stop, though …

More pics from Copenhagen and around.

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With sauce

From Prague north to Berlin, by train. Gorgeous countryside: for most of the trip the train chases the river: the Vltava to the Labem to the Elbe, through wide valleys and steep-sided gorges, all green, with glimpses of little towns (and big ones, like Dresden) that beg a visit. I did the same trip in the other direction ten years ago, and it was as absorbing as I remember.

This time I got to try something genuinely new: a sit down meal – a good meal – in a railway dining car: table service, white linen, countryside rattling past. Lovely.

And then into the giant, relatively new station in Berlin and a taxi to a rented apartment in Mitte. I was promised a penthouse in a good location and that’s what I got. I didn’t get an elevator – which would have been nice – but I did get ready access to public transport, Museum Insel and lots of eateries in one of the livelier and busier parts of Berlin. I read a while ago that after reunification the centre of Berlin life shifted east, from Kurfürstendamm to Alexanderplatz, and Mitte is right next door.


There’s a TV behind that window and it’s the size of a table for six

Berlin in general and Mitte in particular made me think that if I was 25 and had any sense of adventure I’d quit my job or whatever else I was doing, get a work permit and head for the airport. I’ll settle for telling anyone I know around that age to do so.

Impressions of Berlin: bicycles, war damage, bears, construction, 80s acts just not willing to give up yet and a wild variety of styles both life- and clothing. Plus more than a few people trying just a little too hard to be quirky and interesting …


Central Europe is where the 80s never ended

I’ve been to Berlin once before, but only briefly. I stayed in a tiny hotel room on Kurfürstendamm, took a walk through Tiergarten in glorious autumn and went up the then-new Norman Foster dome over the reopened Reichstag. The display under the dome, tracing the history of the Wall from first construction to the miraculous events of ’89, was deeply moving. And a far better relation of the history of divided Berlin than the Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which I saw on this visit. It’s overcrowded and disorganised, and not worth the time.

There are, blessedly, many other things to see in Berlin, and during this trip I managed to tick off a few more things on the list I don’t have: the Pergamon Museum, Berliner Dom, a river tour, and a stroll along Unter den Linden (motivated in part by a hunt for an ATM – a geldautomat – which are scarce and well-hidden).


Spoils of war

I also went to the Holocaust memorial, the Denkmal … which I have to say was a bit disappointing. I always thought the idea, and what I understood of the thinking behind it, was … well, appealing is the wrong word, but the notion of an intentionally disturbing memorial seemed right, with the grey concrete blocks of different sizes emphasising the individuality of the Holocaust’s victims. The reality fell far short of that: the surrounding area is too busy, too touristy, the site itself doesn’t inspire any sense of awe, despite the instructions to visitors, and the fact that some of the blocks have crumbled to the extent that they need steel bracing bands made me think that the vision was perhaps not quite as inspired as I might have believed. More meaningful and more moving was something I discovered quite by accident, something I’d never even heard of: stolpersteine. There were some right outside the door of the building where I was staying:


These are individual – and originally illegal, or at least unauthorised – memorials to the Jews, gays, gypsies, intellectuals and others persecuted, arrested, deported and killed by the Nazis. The stones and the website give only a glimpse of their stories, but sometimes that is enough: some of the brass cobbles reveal whole families rounded up and disappeared. They say “here lived …” and when the building they’re outside is more than a century old, you can be sure they lived there. If you happen to be staying at that place, that house … you have to wonder. Collectively and individually the stolpersteine are an amazing tribute.

There is so much more to see and do in Berlin. Including many places – cafés, restaurants, small street side-stands or carts – where you can but fresh-cooked pork sausage, in a roll or on a plate, plain or covered in sauce. There are even – as I discovered on this visit – poor bastards who have to stand around on busy corners, strapped into a harness which props a charcoal or gas burner in front of them and a large umbrella over their heads. Ready to sell sausages.

Which are meaty and tasty and satisfying. A good tourist-on-the-go lunch. They are nice sausages, good sausages, a quintessence of the sausage-making art and a brutal indictment of Australian sausage-making expertise …

I was equally impressed by the sausage-cutting machine I saw in several places: stainless steel, bench-mounted, designed and engineered to slice the cooked sausage into convenient chunks so it can be deposited on a paper plate and smothered into tomato sauce and curry powder. This, the currywurst, is a signature Berlin experience, and you can infer a lot about Berlin’s attitude to the subject from the existence of that special sausage-slicing mechanism.

Berlin: serious about sausage.


Right outside the cathedral

Pics from Berlin here – and a collection of quirkier sights here.

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All ashore

So here I am in Bohemia. Just after arriving I learned there are no bears to chase me. Few wild animals at all, in fact – the deadliest things in Czech forests are the mushrooms – and so little loose wildlife that farms have few fences. Strange.

It’s a long trip from the Antipodes: Canberra to Melbourne to Dubai to London to Prague, about 30 hours travel time in total. Some of that is down to me, though: with a bit of thought I would have realised I could go from Dubai to Prague, since I’m not obliged to fly in and out of London. Never mind. I got here, my bags got here (checked in at Canberra Airport and I didn’t see them until Prague), my brain and soul eventually caught up. Then again, I think my soul lives somewhere around here anyway – maybe it wasn’t such a long trip, psyche-wise.

My Czech chum being as she is we went straight from the airport to Prague Castle, for a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, in Czech, in a 14th or 15th century courtyard between what is now a toy museum (special exhibition of Barbies) and edifice called the Black Tower (Černá véz) The performance is part of Prague’s annual Summer Shakespeare Festival – something I’ve enjoyed before – and features a delightfully dorky Benedict and a Beatrice who’s a bit Amanda Palmer and a bit Idris in The Doctor’s Wife. Even in Czech, it all comes good in the end but you still have to wonder why Hero would marry Claudio after all the crap he has put her through.

I heard they had to get married …

I managed to stay awake for the denouement, the drive to Rudna and a brief conversation before the ’awake for 40 hours’ crash.

What followed was a week very much out of the routine for me: one that involved putting together Ikea furniture (important tip: first, remove all cats from the vicinity), dropping kids off at school, having my ankles attacked by various small animals, picking kids up from school and helping them with homework. All of which was strangely relaxing (so writes someone who doesn’t have to deal with this sort of thing every day).

The week included sightseeing, of course: a lovely Saturday evening dinner and stroll in Prague’s old town; a Sunday drive to a small castle (zamec in Czech, really more of a chateau type thing); and lots of the random ambling that characterises a lot of my sightseeing.

Guarded by attack poultry

I did manage to tick a few things off the list, though. The last time I came to Prague I set out one day with the intent of getting to the castle and climbing the cathedral tower. Unfortunately, the escalator ride up from a deep Metro station gave me a staggering (literally) case of vertigo – the the first time I’ve ever been affected like that – and I never made it. This week I did, and it was totally worth it … even if I did, subsequently, trip over on perfectly level ground and twist, wrench and bruise various things. Stupid tourists.

The view from the tower

And I went on a walk around Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish quarter. The original plan was to see just the old cemetery, which I had heard was picturesque. I wound up visiting almost all the synagogues and other sites in the area, and the whole experience was incredible.

Too many tour groups

On the walls of one old synagogue, carefully handwritten, are the names of all the Jews of Prague and Bohemia rounded up and deported – and mostly, eventually, killed – by the Nazis. Names and dates of birth and the date they were last seen alive, which in cases was the date they were sent off to Terezín and the camps. It was beautiful and awful – as was the collection of ritual and sacred implements confiscated by the Nazis, rigorously catalogued (by local historians who were themselves deported when the job was done) and then just dumped in attics and storerooms. A small fraction of it is on display in some of the re-opened synagogues: history preserved but at a terrible price, all context gone, the names and the stories that went with these objects elided: just catalogue numbers and brief descriptions.

It was beautiful and awful, and I would urge anyone who comes to Prague to take the same walk.

But now – dire contrast – I am sitting in an apartment in a refitted early Renaissance building, in a small square by a medieval church, listening to the jazz leaking up from the basement club in the former palace of a merchant prince. There are cobblestones outside, and nice eateries, and expensive cars. My father, joining me for a few days, is snoring in the next room.

Somewhere for dinner

Prague is booming, and full of life and history. This is my fourth visit. I doubt it will be my last. Knowing someone here is an attraction, of course, but at some level I always knew I would one day visit Prague, come to love Prague. I knew Prague even when I had never been here, never read a word of Kafka or Kundera, heard of Jan Hus or the Black Theatre or the strange goings on at the court of Rudolf II.

In 1987, INXS, then on the brink of brief international glory, released the album Kick, and a single, Never Tear Us Apart, the following year. At some point around then I would have seen the music video for the single: Michael Hutchence and the band all moody and monochrome, strolling the river banks of what was clearly not an Australian city. I saw that clip and knew the city was Prague, even though I had never been there and to the best of my recollection hadn’t seen any characteristic pictures of the place. I just knew, and in the same way I knew I would one day come here.

I should have come back sooner.

More pics from Prague.

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Excursions and alarums

Earlier this year I had a Grand Expedition planned: my first trip to Spain, which has long been on my list; visiting a friend in Prague; a spell in London, of course; and a week in Stratford for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. It was all organised, in parts well in advance. It was all paid for.

A week before I was due to leave I realised I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. In fact it was making me stressed. I cancelled the whole thing, deferred the plane travel, got refunds on what I could (in fact a very helpful lad at Qantas helped me to get refunds for things that were, strictly speaking, non-refundable). I think I lost about $3000 even so.

It was … strange. Something that’s never happened before. I know it was the right thing to do – I knew it straight away. A big part of it was that I didn’t much like the idea of a long trip mostly on my own. Company is nice. But there were other factors, too, that I’m still trying to understand.

So I stayed in Canberra, stuck with things at work and used the conjunction of a couple of public holidays to have a 10 day break at home. Which was just what I needed.

imageThings got curly

It got me thinking, though, about why I travel. Why go to all that trouble and expense and inconvenience?

For me it seems to come down to three things: bragging rights (I’m being honest), photo opportunities and the chance of a gosh moment. And it’s the last that matters, because travelling to be able to brag about it is shallow (I never said I was incapable of shallow), and photo ops you can find anywhere if you’re any bloody good as a photographer.

The gosh moments count. Those times when some part of the experience overwhelms you, even momentarily. The first time I went to Paris I made my first priority going to see the Eiffel Tower (like I said, shallow). I rode the train in from Clichy (youth hostel, can’t recommend it), jumped off at the nearest RAR station, walked a bit and … there it was. Massive. Grey. Steel. Overwhelming. All the photos can never prepare you for the reality of it. Not me, anyway; I turned away, walked down a random side street, found a cafe where I couldn’t see the damn thing and sat down to recover. I went back a few days later and climbed all the way to the top, but I’ve never forgotten that original reaction. Gosh moment.

It’s very hard to get that kind of experience in familiar surrounds.

imageBig giant head

Travel isn’t really trouble and inconvenience (if it is, there’s something going wrong). It is expensive. We do it anyway. I do it anyway, hoping for at least one moment each trip. Mostly I’ve been lucky.

imageA better gosh moment

That stress and lack of enthusiasm and last minute cancellation made me realise that not only would I rather travel in company – which raises a bunch of other issues – but also that to a certain extent I’d rather have someone else do all the scut work. Not that I plan on frequenting Flight Centre in future but yes, I’ve reached an age where a package tour – – a nice package tour – is kinda tempting … provided it’s not over-scheduled. I need to opportunity to do random stuff.

Meanwhile, I have a plane ticket to use and a promise to keep. So later this week I’ll be packing my bags and making my way to Prague. And a few other places …

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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.


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.


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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.


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.


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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA______________________________________________________________

* 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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