Archive for January, 2008

Canberra – Remembrance Driveway and memory lane

January 31, 2008

 Road at Bull’s Head

For the Australia Day weekend, I travelled down to Canberra to see my father and stepmother.  If you follow this blog you will see that I don’t do this all that often.

I drove down on Friday afternoon and drove back on Monday afternoon.

The road to Canberra must be the road out of Sydney which I have driven the most.  Driving at this time of year south of Campbelltown I have a clear recollection of that fateful time when my father drove me and J (with whom I was to live) down to Canberra to take up respectively my job with the public service and her scholarship at the ANU. 

Other spots on the way also have numerous associations.  Two of my favourite resting spots are the rather fine stone bridge over Black Bob’s Creek, just south of Berrima (you have to drive in a little beyond the rest area for the bridge itself), and Rowes Lagoon, on the Federal Highway between Goulburn and Collector. 

Not that either of these places is so signposted any more – instead, in something which I take as symptomatic of the incipient militarisation of much of Australian life in the last 10 or so years (the Howard years, not entirely coincidentally) they have both been renamed after some VC or other as part of the beefing up of the “Remembrance Driveway”  (Rowes Lagoon is referred to on that map as Rose Lagoon – see comments and the link in them below – historically it seems to have been Tarago Lagoon or Rose’s Lagoon and was declared a bird sanctuary as early as 1932). It’s all of a piece with the ANZAC Bridge, the Light Horse and Roden Cutler Interchanges.  I really hate that.  I don’t want to appear ungrateful to our long and not-so-long dead and war heroes, but similarly to patriotism (best when kept under control and in the heart rather than on the sleeve), for my money militarism is at its best when it is confined to times of war.  This quasi-RSL nominal takeover reminds me of the proto-fascists of D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo – not so far removed from JWH’s dad’s ex-serviceman leg-up as a dummy rubber planter in the mandate territory of the former German New Guinea, by the way.  In any event, my patriotic loyalty is to Henry Bourne Higgins and the Harvester judgment rather than Billy Hughes, General Birdwood and Captain de Groot.

I lived in Canberra for two years (aetat 21-23).  That’s quite a long time ago now, and on every return I increasingly feel like Rip Van Winkle.  This time I saw that parts of the Benjamin Office Buildings in Belconnen are now being knocked down.  Already a number of the Cameron offices (which were the subject of a famous defamation suit) have been demolished: not greatly regretted, I am told, by anyone who worked in them, even if no-one has anything good to say for the modern cubes which are replacing them.  It may well be that the new buildings are now only leased by the Commonwealth: certainly, any pretensions to civic or public architecture have been well and truly abandoned.

About 6 months after I moved to Canberra, I bought one of the early Subaru 4-wheel-drive station wagons from an employee of the Canadian High Commission. With Captain [Marcellous] at the wheel, J and I made numerous expeditions to the Canberra hinterland.

I was young and foolhardy.  I blush to say that we assayed paths which we should have spared the impact of our wheels, and also, on at least 2 occasions, which were too much for us.  Once we had to walk out when the distributor became so fouled with dust that insufficient cylinders were firing to get us up a steep pinch.  On the second occasion, driving on the road to Mt Franklin with the intention of riding further on our bicycles past the terminal locked gate, we sustained first one then a second flat tyre, so that instead we ended up riding back for about 10km before we met a forestry truck whose occupants drove us back to the Uriarra Forestry Camp and arranged for an NRMA tow-truck to retrieve the vehicle.  By this time I had taken up a PhD scholarship myself, and in the light of the freedom that afforded me, dyed my hair a shade which I can best describe as Telefunken blue.  One of the forestry blokes good-humouredly asked me, “You  been struck by lightning, mate?”

In memory of these sallies, on Saturday I ventured past the Cotter Dam and out along the road which leads eventually to Mt Franklin or the Brindabella valley.

The country still shows signs of the devastating fire of 2003.  The Uriarra Forestry Camp was largely burnt down, and now appears to be being subdivided for sale.  Higher up on the range, a grey stubble of dead tree tops rose on every ridge line or ripple.  Closer up it looks like this from underneath:

Near Bull’s Head

A thunder storm cleared and the sun re-emerged. Coupled with the late afternoon, this provoked an outburst of birdsong.  Walking and then driving past Bull’s Head (about 4 km from Picadilly Circus, which is where the road to the Brindabella departs from the road to Mt Franklin) I actually sighted 4 lyre birds, including one male bird which, when it finally realised I was near, flew to a branch and then, after a final and admonitory whistling screech, away in an unlikely and loping flight.  I have never before seen even one lyre bird, as usually when you hear them you can never get up close enough before they rush away in the undergrowth, so to see four was quite a treat. 

On Sunday, I had dinner with my friend from many years ago, IB, and his family.  We decided it might have been 10 or even 11 years since we last saw each other, and it was good to catch up.  IB was an ARO (Assistant Research Officer) at the Department of Primary Industry when I was an ARO at the decidedly inglorious Department of Administrative Services, and we had met through a series of inservice courses which our respective departments sent their batches of AROs to in their first year of service.  He was a mature age ARO and about 10 years older than me, but it was still a sobering reminder of advancing age to learn that, following a crippling repetitive strain injury, he had been made redundant and is now a superannuant – the first person whom I think of as being a work contemporary who has emerged at the other side of the work-life experience. 

IB and I went canoeing on the Molonglo River at the head of Lake Burley-Griffin in a 2-seater canoe which he has just purchased and transported on the roof of the same VW Golf which he drove when I first knew him.  It was very pleasant: we paddled up close to two nests where (in one) a black cormorant and (in the other) a white cormorant tended to a brood of chicks.  That’s another wildlife first for me.  As IB said, this sort of thing is really what Canberra is about.

Otherwise, most of the weekend with my father and stepfather seems to have been spent reading.  I read Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman, Philip Ziegler’s biography of Rupert Hart-Davis (I’ve read his and Lyttleton’s letters before) and Michael Holroyd’s family memoir/autobiography Basil Street Blues.  All of these books are my step-mother’s.  You can see there is something of a common thread between them.  There are still many many volumes of and about James Lees-Milne to go.

Actually, when I say I read these, except for the Holroyd, this was mostly a re-reading held over from previous visits. I’ve also dipped into J L-M before but I’m not sure if I will ever be up to the complete body of work by or about him. And the more I read about Hart-Davis, the less attracted I am to him.  Class resentment has something to do with this, I am afraid.  For that matter, I started [re]reading the Betjeman volumes because I have recently been listening to a terrific song-setting by Madeleine Dring of his poem “Business Girls.”  This poem is a vision of a thousand single working women having baths in their flats in sub-divided large houses in Camden in London in the early post-war years.  It is often cited as a poem expressing sympathy for their lives, but I think you have to swallow a lot of class-spirit and forgive it in the face of the final stanza:

Rest you there, poor unbelov’d ones,
Lap your loneliness in heat.
All too soon the tiny breakfast,
Trolley-bus and windy street!

There is a fine line between sympathy and condescension and this crosses it. Who’s to say they are unbeloved? Is that just because they are not the sort of aristocratic gels that Betjeman fancied? On googling, I was gratified to have my further doubt about the scenario for this poem confirmed. It seemed fundamentally unlikely that the secretarial class would generally enjoy the luxury of a morning bath: only a poet accustomed to gentleman’s hours could have supposed so. As Terrence Kilmartin commented,

“It is a pity that most business girls, like my secretary…, have their baths in the evening – but I don’t think that matters much.”

I think it matters more than Kilmartin allowed.

Further in this vein, one thing which struck me about Michael Holroyd’s book was the way in which he approached what he evidently considered to be the long decline of his family’s fortunes over the twentieth-century and his parents’ and grandparents’ lives – a decline which appears to have been cushioned by a reasonably healthy opening balance, financially speaking, and apparently little necessity to earn a regular income as a result. Though Holroyd treats his family as failures, and affects even to include his own early career in this (on the grounds that until about 1977 his income as a writer only averaged ₤1500 a year) his career was actually enabled by the private income which they managed to provide him whilst he made his start. The extent to which literary and artistic achievement are underwritten (because they require time) by private income remains under-acknowledged.  Brett Whitely, Martin Sharp, Patrick White are just a few Australian examples.  Undoubtedly they were talented, but there must have been many others possibly equally so who never got the chance they had.

Holroyd has written a sequel, Mosaic, which I intend to search out. That book, in part, follows further the stories of two upwardly-mobile adventurers against whom the fortunes of his family, one way or another, foundered, and in particular the young woman whom his grandfather stopped to give a lift to in the general strike of 1926 and whom he was so taken by that he only returned home (considerably poorer) eight years later. Holroyd’s hostility to this fortune-eroder (subtext: gold-digger) is barely concealed in Basil Street Blues.

Driving back on Monday I made a detour to the Bungonia Gorge State Recreation Area, which includes a truly vertiginous “Look-Down.”

Bungonia Look down 

– Not that photos (or at least my photos) can ever really capture this sort of thing.

Bungonia itself is a curious backwater. I stopped and looked at the striking Anglican church, and only later learnt that the (not terribly prepossessing) Catholic church is apparently the oldest Catholic church building remaining on the mainland. 

House arrest – how does it feel?

January 20, 2008

The film below from China will give you an idea of the view from inside. 

It isn’t fun being a dissident.  I very much doubt if I would have the courage or the necessary bloody-mindedness to be one. Most of us internalize at least outward adherence to mainstream social values as a matter of practical commonsense.

The maker of this video (in 7 parts if you follow them all via the youtube url) is now in full-on detention again.  I don’t know enough about the actual contents of his dissidence. I suspect it is in some ways one of those things which just gained its own momentum, a bit like, in a more comical way, the unnameable party-boy with the big sunglasses and the pierced nipple in Australia. 

The maker of the video (see, I am even too cautious to name him directly on this blog) is generally described as an AIDS activist, which almost inevitably seems to lead to problems for reasons which are not immediately obvious but which I think have to do with the government’s and the party’s lack of tolerance for any independent NGOs and also the stench of corruption over the sale of blood and the subsequent AIDS epidemic in poor rural regions of China and Henan in particular.  He has also been a “human rights activist,” which seems to follow on from the first. 

His Wikipedia entry also says that he has been involved in anti-Japanese agitation, which I think shows that activism can have Chinese characteristics which may be a mystery to us.  I have always thought that Chinese who are keen on anti-Japanese agitation are just playing into the nationalist hands of the government of the day – but maybe that just goes to show you can never understand these things as an outsider.  Along the way, he has also garnered support from the Epoch Times. I am not at all keen on the Epoch Times. I wonder if this is just an application of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

色,戒 (Lust, Caution)

January 18, 2008

Last night, uncharacteristically on the first night of its release in Australia, D and I went to see Ang Lee’s latest film, Lust Caution.

How could I fail to go and see this, having been subjected to months of teasers by Roland Soong, whose blog, ESWN, I have long followed and who, in addition to having attended Holy Cross College in Ryde in the late-sixties, is the literary executor of the Eileen Chang, whose short story forms the basis of the film?

How could I ever have written such a long sentence under the guise of a question?

I enjoyed the film, though D was quick to point out that the plot is not particularly credible.  Like Brokeback Mountain, it is a long film (too long, by more than one account) drawn out of a fairly short original story, but mercifully didn’t feel as slow as BM 

The film has gained some notoriety for its sex scenes.  This is deserved.  At one point, a blurry but suspiciously tuber-shaped object caused a flurry of conjecture between members of the audience.  I am sure we were all wondering the same thing: is that Mr Leung’s (not-so-)小弟弟 and are they really doing it?  (My own view: (1) probably; and (2) surely not.)

The film is sumptuously made, especially so far as the historical recreation is involved  (Hong Kong, Shanghai, 1938 – 1942).  Wikipedia claims some anachronistic London-style taxis in the Hong Kong scenes.  D is newly embarked on an attempt to give up smoking.  I am indebted to him for the further anachronism which he noted, namely that Tony Leung neglected to tap the base of his cigarettes to settle their contents before lighting up. 

Eight Months Review

January 17, 2008

At the time of writing, the position is:

Total Views: 11,430

Best Day Ever: 135 — Tuesday, October 30, 2007 (which is unchanged)

Total views for months 7 and 8 are 2,666, compared to about 3,500 in months 5 and 6. 

I have been posting less and less.  From the point of view of life/blogging balance, this is probably not such a bad thing.  In the past two months I have only made 6 (or 7 including this) and 8 posts respectively – that is, 13 (or 14) of the now 139 (140) posts made altogether.  This means that traffic mostly comes to my back catalogue out of the blue which is the world wide web and its searchers.

Whether you are a regular or a new reader, thanks for your “visit.”  I’d like especially to thank returning readers for sticking by me. 

La Cenerentola – minor regrets ultimately overcome

January 16, 2008

To report, following on from my last post.

Things started badly at the first two orchestral chords: someone had chosen to bring a babe in arms, who promptly burst into tears.  At least she (the mother) was near the exit and left promptly.  I know I should feel sorry for her, but I am really astounded that she thought this was appropriate or that she was even allowed admission.  Perhaps she smuggled the infant in beneath a shawl.  There were still quite a few children left whom I judged to be too young (ie, under 7 or 8).  The music may be simple and cheerful, but the night is long, and the opera is in Italian.

At the start, things were a little flat, and I did begin to regret my exchange.  Why did I think a grade C cast for Rossini was a lesser evil than a grade B cast for Puccini?  And there can be few things worse than humour falling flat, which it was rather doing at this stage.  The orchestral playing was not as acutely energised as it could have been, which doesn’t really meet my ideals of Rossinian “wit.”  I don’t think this was the players’ fault: it seemed to follow from the conductor’s direction. 

There was a dreadful moment in Alidoro’s big aria, La del ciel nell’arcano profondo where the singer simply choked up: it is a big sustained sing which had obviously really taxed him.  I excused him this because my researches and previous experience suggest that this is an almost universal problem with this number, which Rossini inserted on an occasion when he had an unusually good bass available.

Things looked up when Joshua Bloom came on as Dandini, the prince’s butler who is comically made to assume princely disguise: I’d count him a B or even B+ grade singer by Opera Australia standards.  I’m a bit surprised that he didn’t rate a mention in McCallum’s review to which I referred in my previous post.

I can’t say I was really crazy about Richard Alexander as the father, Don Magnifico.  To me, he is always the same kind of buffoon.  But that may really only be that he is always the same person.  Conal Coad at the WA Opera production was much better.

On reflection, the WA Opera cast was stronger over all.  It is true that they had to work in a smaller theatre, but I sit up close enough in the Opera Theatre to preclude this as a factor in my experience or assessment.

Opera Australia’s Prince was Kanen Breen.  He is tall and skinny, and essentially a comic character singer.  He made a good show of his parts in The Rake’s Progress and Tales of Hoffmann. However, some amount of romantic glamour is required to infuse the comedy with the necessary residual elements of a fairy story, even allowing for the librettist’s excision of Perrault’s supernatural elements.  KB affects a comic grin which may serve some vocal production purpose, but I prefer his voice (in this role at least) without the teeth, even though it inclines towards the neat/petite.

Cinderella/Angelina was sung by Dominica Matthews.  I thought she was suffering from a bit of vocal strain which put a not entirely attractive edge on her voice.

I mentioned in my last post that McCallum’s review included some warning of all of this.  As he said: “This production gives a young team valuable opportunities in major roles.”  And he did describe Matthews as  “a promising coloratura mezzo soprano” and her performance as “a creditable role debut.”  A friend said to me at interval when I vented some of my criticisms “Why waste first-rate singers on Cinderella?” but I don’t agree.  It’s often the slightest pieces which need the strongest casts, and this is especially so in Rossini when so much of it is simply about the singing – and there is so much of it! 

Oh my, what a lot of whingeing!  I don’t normally approach operas in a reviewer’s frame of mind: it’s just the exchange question which threw up such evaluative issues.  I try to take any performers on their own terms and enjoy something as it comes – why do otherwise?  As I learnt long ago (at a Sydney University Musical Society performance of Elijah in fact) you should always say, if asked by friends who are in such a performance, “It’s a great work.” There’s a lot to be said for adopting that approach inwardly as well.

And things did lift up anyway.  I had forgotten, in particular, just how effective and splendid a piece of quite old-fashioned stagecraft the sequence in the second act is when the prince’s coach rushes (in silhouette) through a night storm ending in a crash just outside Cinderella’s door.  This fully deserved the audience’s applause.  And in the end, once it rose above initial lameness, so much good humour is hard to resist.

One thing I do like about a lot of Rossini is how sometimes the singing isn’t just about notes, but becomes about the physicality of the words.  Don Magnifico’s two biggest numbers are very much like this (Coad was much better than Alexander at this), and at the denoeuement there is an ensemble which positively bristles with knotty sounds (avviluppato /inviluppa /gruppo /sviluppa /sgruppa /ragruppo).  The ensemble delivered these with relish but there could still have been more for my taste.

I would have liked to have read the review on my fellow Sydney opera-goer’s blog, Prima la musica (etc) but I see that she has obtained a paying gig – or so I presume, for her, and certainly so for me if I want to read it. All power to her, but I’m afraid I draw the line at that for the time being.  After all, this whole evaluative thing was brought on by my new year’s resolution to be frugal.  If there’s anything to regret, it is that, and the consequent decision not to go to La B, rather than the decision to go to La C.

La Cenerentola – regrets?

January 15, 2008

I am trying to be frugal this year, and I am already regretting it.  Yesterday, I swapped my tickets for Saturday’s performance of La Bohème for tickets to tonight’s performance of La Cenerentola.  (That’s Rossini’s Cinderella.) If it weren’t for the frugality push, it would have been easier by far simply to buy the additional tickets to La Cenerentola.  But I stuck to my resolve.

What this resolve reminds me of is the occasion, many years ago, when I went to buy a student rush ticket for Britten’s Death in Venice.  The box office person at the Opera House offered me a really crumby seat.  I was sure (and I am sure still) that there were better ones available.  It was Britten, for heaven’s sake!  Notwithstanding that I had waited a while and was right there ready to go, I declined the seat I was offered and walked away.  It was years before I got to see it.

And now (as I regret the exchange) I realise that this time too I have been standing on my dignity: how dare Opera Australia dish up a revival so soon as part of my subscription series! And La Bohème again! Really!

The reason why they dare is that Bohème is pretty much a never-fail crowd pleaser. I am no more immune to that than anybody else – no matter what superior tastes I like to affect.  I know I would really have enjoyed La B. Although the production had a mixed reception when premiered the year before last, I liked it then and found it as sincere an approach to the problematic operatic nostalgia for youthful bohemianism as one can expect.  And even if the Mimi and Rudolfo are rather lightly cast in this year’s revival, I would have got to hear the admirable Jose Carbo.

The even sillier thing is that I have swapped the tickets for a revival of an ancient production of one of the silliest operas ever, a production which as recently as 2004 I saw three times when it was mounted by the WA Opera in Perth.  (Never say you can’t see enough opera in Perth – you just have to be prepared to see the the same opera a lot.) Not that I regret that at all – because I was there for work rather than for life, I didn’t have so much else to do, and Rossini and Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre make an almost ideal match.

So, I am hoping that I will overcome my regrets, at least tonight, even if they resurface on Saturday when I realise I could be wallowing in Puccini. There are some warning notes in McCallum’s review in the SMH, but the thing about Rossini is that it really can be so utterly delightful. I shall report.

Riding westwards

January 13, 2008

Coolah Tops road 

The title is a bit of a half-truth, since in the end we “rode” eastwards at least as much as we travelled westwards, though it is an echo of a (to me) memorable trip over the divide which I undertook one Good Friday some years ago.

Starting on Wednesday, D and I travelled west (as you will have guessed).  We first drove to spend two nights at one of the the Goulburn River Stone Cottages, about 3 km off the Ulan road, about 10 km past Ulan, which in turn is about 40 km past Mudgee.  I have previously been twice to The Drip, a scenic spot about 2 km up the river from this cottage.  Now seemed a good time to stay at the Stone Cottages, because the commencement of mining on the Mooraben mineral lease this year threatens the ground water and ecosystem of this area, or so opponents of that mine say.  The cottages are a number of “huts” (or so the map described the one where we stayed) in a property, Gleniston, which adjoins the Goulburn River National Park.

We stayed two nights.  On the day in between, we took a little drive up to Cassilis (not really much to see there, really) and then came back for a skinny-dip (sorry if that is TMI) at a spot in the Goulburn River just upstream from “our” cottage.  The cottage itself is a single room hut with a kitchen at one end and sleeping and sitting quarters at the other.  The lights are powered by a 12 v solar panel (so no TV or other electrical modern conveniences, which is part of the point); the hot water and fridge (two useful mod-cons) are gas powered.  There is a rustically constructed bathroom at the back, for which the water is pumped from the river, so we didn’t need to feel too guilty about bathing, although we were urged to water the surrounding plants with our grey water.  We saw some wildlife, though not as much as some others have, judging by the visitors’ books kept at the cottage.  The deep quiet and dark (no moon on either night) also vouchsafed us many many stars.  One oddity about this is that I found it almost impossible amongst so many to make out the Southern Cross!

On Friday to Gulgong, of which I have written before and where a friend owns a house.  Here, too, we stayed two nights.  On the day in between, we drove again, this time even further, to Coolah and then to Coolah Tops National Park.  This is apparently the south-eastern extreme of the Warrumbungles, where they meet the Dividing and Liverpool Ranges.  Until 1996, the park was a state forest, and it shows signs of this, but it is still a magical place.  The approach, and especially the last 10 or so km up a ridge-top “gravel” (but actually more just extremely stony) road is an adventure in itself.  

Once there, we took three short walks. 

The first involved a steep descent to a waterfall and ascent in return. We convinced ourselves that our shortness of breath was owing to the altitude. 

The second was to a very striking stand of giant grass trees.  If this hadn’t been level, I would not have been able to persuade D to make it.

grass treesgrass trees

The third, at the end of the road, was to a lookout known as “The Pinnacle.”  This is a narrow basaltic ridge jutting out from a line of cliffs, from which you can look north over the plains.  It was an amazing feeling and well worth the journey.  I recommend this.  One bizarre feature of this walk is that, all of a sudden, miles from the last encountered fence, there is a fence with  a little gate (oddly, higher than the fence itself) which everybody apparently opens and then shuts again by means of one of those toggles on a chain which you then slip on to a post with a knob on the end.  (If anyone can work out what I mean by this and what the proper term is, I would be indebted.)  It reminded me of the lamp-post in Narnia.

The most perilous part of the road was not the gravel part up to and in the park, but the bitumen section on the valley floor from Coolah.  The road, though paved, had been scarcely made at all, with the result that at some points on one side or other of the road it had simply subsided in a deep rut, leaving a relatively high ridge in the middle of the road.  This ridge scraped most alarmingly on the undercarriage of our (admittedly low-set) city car on the one occasion when I imprudently allowed the car to straddle it.  After that, I was alert to the problem.

On the way to Coolah we drove through Leadville.  There was a hall with a sign which advertised that it was for hire and (at first glance) that it was “Suitable for occasions.”  As we flashed past it on the way back, it only a little more prosaically (or less prosaically, from one point of view) appeared to state that it was “suitable for all occasions.” 

On Sunday, back to Sydney, including through enormous ex-hailstone raindrops from about Leura to Penrith.