Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Northern grit

London, Paris, New York. So far, we could be talking fashion (not that I would, of course). But add Boston, Brussels, Sydney, Nice, Istanbul, Stockholm and now Manchester, and you know I'm not just listing places I've been. A lot of my travels have put me in touch with war - Two, One, Vietnam, Boer, Civil, Maori, the list goes on - the best bit of which was that they were all part of history. But, oh so sadly, war isn't something uncivilised we've put behind us, like child slavery and the black plague [*cough* Actually...] - it keeps on keeping on, both in its traditional incarnation, and in this new, insidious and apparently uncontrollable variety.

More and more, I wonder how different the history of the world might be if women, not men, had been in charge, I really do. We're making tiny steps in that direction, but will the world still be salvaegable by the time women get their turn? 

Anyway. In his poem, stirringly read by Tony Walsh at the vigil for the victims of the Arena bomb, he mentions, amongst all the other good things that Manchester has given the world - computers, cotton, Coronation Street amongst them - the splitting of the atom. Not always put to the best of uses, of course, but it was great science, and the man behind it was Lord Ernest Rutherford, of New Zealand, who did a lot of his early research, before his time in Manchester, in his basement lab underneath the Great Hall in what was the University of Canterbury and is now the Christchurch Arts Centre. I spent many hours in that hall on a hard chair, scribbling away, trying anxiously to keep up with the Eng I lecturers in my first year at varsity. (Having just looked Rutherford up, I find that he went to Nelson College for Boys, one of the schools where I did a teaching practice section. How did I not notice that when I was there?)
There was a sign beside the door of the Great Hall pointing down to Rutherford's den, so I unwittingly absorbed the information about his work with atomic physics - for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, no less. Imagine my surprise, then, to see a storyboard in the Willis Tower in Chicago claiming work done there as "the initial step in building the atomic bomb". Pft.

I don't know Manchester very well. I toured the Coronation Street set way back when it was still possible to do that, to go into the Rovers, and walk along the famous cobbles. And a few years ago I spent an afternoon poking through the city's Museum of Science and Industry, which was dauntingly detailed. I never expected to understand the (temporary) Hadron Collider exhibit, but even the looms were impossibly complicated. How you'd even start inventing something like that, I have no idea. So, I learned little, but was deeply impressed by the nerdy passion on display.

Manchester is a gritty city, and a strong one. It's weathered worse, and will undoubtedly come through this. The pity is, that it has to.

Monday, May 22, 2017

P.M. and M.P.

It was hard to avoid the faux-Royal Wedding this weekend. Weddings generally, and the English upper-class variety especially, are a quaint ritual, notable for the bizarre costumes and archaic language and customs; but harmlessly diverting and easy enough on the eye, I suppose. Pippa Middleton's dress was certainly lovely; though its price of $70,000 was just obscene. What really caught my eye, however, was the photo in Saturday morning's paper of what the caption declared to be the (fiancé) Matthews family country estate near Loch Ness: a picturesque towering castle on a small island in a lake.
That looks familiar, I thought, sure that I'd seen it on my first visit to Scotland in 2007. Trawling through the photos took a while: Scotland is not short of a castle or two, and I visited my share on that trip (though not, it has to be said, as many as on a much shorter drive through Wales, which really has gone to town, castle-wise. I defy anyone to keep them straight in their head afterwards, without a cheat sheet). In the end, I found it and, though there are similarities, it clearly wasn't the same one. No bridge, for a start. 
So I shrugged my shoulders and went on with my day. Night-time came and, sprawled passively on the sofa, I found myself watching - again - Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Still pretty funny, I was thinking - and then noticed the location for Camelot. Another castle, a different one this time, but again I thought I'd been there. And I had: it's Doune Castle, near Stirling. Which is a beautiful town, by the way, and well worth visiting (even though, according to my notebook, what struck me most was seeing gorse used there as a garden shrub).
Well, I thought, I got one castle right at least. The movie continued until, just before its jokey ending, there was another castle, which Arthur and his men began to storm to claim the Holy Grail (which, by the way, throughout my youth I thought was a bird, a puzzlingly venerated cousin of the quail. Luckily no-one ever found me out - but nor, to my shame, did I ever look it up. It was only when Indiana Jones came along that I learned my mistake. Good thing cinemas are dark). 
And there it was, the eminently picturesque Castle Stalker that I thought I'd recognised this morning. My own photo (at the top) doesn't do it justice, I freely admit; but I don't want to blame the camera since, two days after I took this photo, I managed to drop it over a cliff on the Isle of Skye and kill it stone dead. Sorry, camera.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Beavers and wolves and bears, alas

It's the dentist pose, isn't it? Lying on your back with your hands clasped over your stomach. When else do you adopt that position? Other than in your coffin, I suppose. Hmm, that's a cheery connection that I didn't make today when having a couple of fillings replaced. Instead, I was listening to my nice dentist and her assistant chatting away randomly as they worked - about turning appliances off at the wall every night, about the new steriliser sounding like a harp, about television, shopping, books... "You're lucky," said Sonika. "Sometimes we talk about laundry."
But then they got on to bucket-list item Alaska (by way of a book of that name, though Georgia was unable to remember the writer, which made me frown. So unfair. A propos of that, have you ever noticed what small and fleeting billing the writer gets when their book is made into a movie? Without whom there would be no movie? Tch.) Anyway, as a distraction technique, I wondered what - if my mouth hadn't been full of clamps, wedges, cotton wool, sucker, drill, mirror and fingers - I might have contributed to that conversation.
There's the frontier feel of the place, the scenery, naturally (in both senses) - the mountains, the glaciers, the woods - and of course the wildlife. Bears, whales, sea otters... it was a thrill to see them all, going about their daily business. The one nugget I think I would have shared though, was what happens to them when man gets his hands on them - literally. 
I have never, before or since, seen so much fur. In Anchorage, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, the shops selling pelts were absolutely standard. Beaver, fox, reindeer, rabbit, wolf, lynx, ermine, mink, musk ox... all on hangers and in piles, begging to be stroked. PETA wouldn't stand a chance in Alaska. I did wonder what the demand was for skins until I overheard a woman dithering between two beaver pelts that she wanted to make into moccasins. Boy, that fur is so thick and rich, I can only imagine how it feels to have it cosseting your feet. Not that I wouldn't so much rather see it on the original owner, mind.
Plus there were coats and boots and slippers and gloves and mittens and hats - including Dan'l Boone classics - and all displayed under what it was hard not to interpret as the condemnatory gaze of mounted heads: wolf, fox,, deer, reindeer, even a complete polar bear. 
Having once attended a Hunt Ball at Cheltenham Town Hall in the '70s where everyone had to run the gauntlet of vociferous antis outside the entrance, who actually spat at the woman near me wearing a fur coat, it was all kind of confronting. But there you go. We travel to see things, and customs, that are different.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tch, NZ Herald

The Firstborn - excitingly for her alone - is this evening setting off on the second part of her Great OE, the EU and GB bit of it this time, and in the card we gave her I found myself impelled to write, amongst all the other obligatory mother stuff (Stay safe! KEEP IN TOUCH!!!) the instruction to 'Learn lots'. To me, that's a really big part of travelling - not sunning yourself on the Costa Brava, not partying into the small hours in Berlin, not scouring the Oxford Street shops. It's not as snobbish a distinction as that makes it sound: it's just my thing. I like to find out stuff.

And then, once having found it out, it becomes part of me and when someone else gets it wrong, well. There's only one response. You have to correct them, don't you? Well, you do if you're a natural-born pedant whose nit-picking impulse has been further honed by being a teacher, and then an official describer of places and what you'll find there.

So when I read this news story this morning about some Kiwi guy doing a Forrest Gump, running across the US from Santa Monica pier to New York, beginning with Route 66, I had to send the paper a Must Do Better tweet when I saw the map. Look at it! That red line is nowhere near Route 66! Having been to both ends of what those of us in the know call the Mother Road, I can confidently state that yes, it finishes at Santa Monica - but it begins in Chicago.
I've seen the signs - I was there when the one for the Chicago end was unveiled, somewhat belatedly - and now, so have you. So we can both tut and shake our heads, and feel superior. And not think for a moment that there's any sort of contradiction at all between this and the theory that travel broadens the mind, and increases tolerance and compassion.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Losing the way in San Jose

"They're making a movie with Helen Mirren about Mrs Winchester!" the OH called up the stairs. And then he waited for my reaction, clearly thinking no further explanation was required. He, of course, had the rest of the newspaper report right in front of him, giving all the background - but me? No idea. So it was a bit peeving to have it explained to me in tones of condescension for my inadequate memory when, it turned out, the reference was to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, where we went TEN YEARS AGO.

Of course, once I had that reference, everything became crystal clear, and I remembered it perfectly. It's an extraordinary place: originally a pleasant but unremarkable Victorian villa built in 1884 that, once Mrs Winchester moved into it, she kept adding to in a totally random manner. When she died, in 1922, it had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows (more than the Empire State Building - some of them in the floor), 47 staircases, 13 bathrooms and six kitchens.

We drove there straight after arriving at San Francisco, and our tour over the house was made even more challenging by the jetlag. We trailed along corridors, round corners, past a staircase that led up to the ceiling, through rooms with hidden doors and secret spy holes, into grand reception rooms with intricate wooden parquet and panelling and beautiful tiled fireplaces, past priceless Tiffany stained glass windows (the best one facing onto a wall) and, most confusing of all, up and down scores of stairs. The switchback staircase with its 44 steps, each only 5cm high, zigzagged seven times as it rose only three metres, and gave the weirdest sensation of descending while climbing up.
One explanation goes that Mrs W felt haunted by the souls of all those people killed by Winchester rifles her husband's company invented and manufactured, and this was her way of keeping them at bay: that's the theory the movie is going with, apparently. Another idea is that she just wanted to keep everyone employed, so carried on thinking up new projects for them, which she designed herself, unconstrained by any sort of architectural principles.

It's a fascinating place, and well worth a visit - as is San Jose itself, capital of Silicon Valley. It was impressively wired-up back in 2007 - I can't imagine how connected it must be now. It's weird to think that our visit was pre-satnav, and I was navigating old-style from a paper map on my lap. Said map ended up scrunched into a ball after my saying "Next left" and the OH turning onto what it transpired was the city's (fortunately empty) light railway, which we had to drive along for an entire block before the concrete barriers either side allowed us to escape. Serves him right that his question has revived my still-burning resentment for those few minutes of sheer terror.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Of doves and Dickin medals

QI tonight was D for, when I turned it on, doves and, naturally, pigeons, and they were talking about carrier pigeons earning medals for wartime bravery. Having seen the episode before - having seen every episode before, it seems - I allowed my mind to wander to where I had seen pigeon medals somewhere. It was with what is becoming a standard sense of unexpected triumph that I quite quickly remembered that it was at Bletchley Park, a couple of years ago.

It was after we went to North Marston (the story about which I've only just written) to see the site of my uncle's wartime plane crash, and before we joined our English friends in Warwick for a week on the Grand Union Canal in the Florence Edith. Located conveniently in between, near Milton Keynes, it really is park-like - big, neat grounds with grass, trees and a pond where swans swim round a fountain, there's a mansion with an elaborate roofline, a clocktower archway into the stables courtyard - and also ranks of plain (ugly) utilitarian buildings where all that mind-blowing work got done.

It takes ages to tour through it all. It's well-presented, there's heaps to read and try to digest, but for the non-mathematical, non-logical brain, it's often pretty daunting. Obviously their visitors have multiplied hugely since the release of The Imitation Game movie and they're doing their best to be accessible but there's no getting past that code-breaking is dense, complicated stuff. I read this storyboard twice and was no wiser - mind, the explanation was written by a code-breaker. At Bletchley, they don't try to hide the fact that some of these people were quite odd.
But it is something, certainly, to see an Enigma machine (again - they have one in Chicago displayed alongside U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry). And it was pleasing to learn that 75% of the staff were women, most of them from the forces. Unsurprisingly, conditions and equipment in the huts were pretty basic - simple desks, typewriters, blackboards, pencils - in total contrast to the machines, which are dazzlingly complicated, with rows of dials and spindles. How people like Alan Turing can dream up and then understand such things is truly a marvel to me.
So it was quite a relief to get to the pigeons - in a room filled with glass cases and simple stories about how these "heroic" birds carried vital messages from the front lines back to the men in charge. Thirty-two of them were awarded Dickin medals by the PDSA (plus 18 to dogs, 3 to horses and one to a ship's cat, Simon, wounded in action on the Yangtze) for their efforts - like Kenley Lass flying 300 miles in seven hours to deliver intelligence from an agent in occupied France. They were sometimes dropped by parachute in boxes down to the troops, to be fitted with a message and released to fly home from the battlefield. And they were carried on planes, too, so if they survived crashing into the sea, they could get word back to base and rescue parties could be sent out for the aircrew.

And you thought pigeons were just aerial rats.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Death in the morning - and in the evening, too

The original plan was to go to Bondi today but the cool, damp cloudy weather that no-one associates with Sydney has continued, so I spurned the sand and kept it cultural, mainly. The good thing about staying in Chippendale is that there's a lot that's within walking distance - even downtown, if you're keen - so it was only a few blocks to the Powerhouse Museum. No prizes for guessing the original use of the venue, but it does mean that there are big, high spaces for the exhibits.
The main attraction for me this time though was in a series of darkened rooms: six Egyptian mummies, a travelling exhibition from the British Museum. It was a combination of ancient and modern, with 3D CT scans showing what was beneath the wrappings at several levels right down to the bones. The deceased had lived up to 3,000 years ago, which in itself is pretty mind-boggling, and I was amazed as usual by the technical expertise shown by the jewellery and carvings: challenging to reach that standard even today. There were toys too, and make-up, and guesses at the stories behind each body.
It's only a temporary exhibition, but there is of course plenty else to see that's permanent - some of it kind of unexpected. Like the big display of contraceptives in their original wrappings, the very suspicious 'Relax-o-Matic' with a smugly knowing woman on the box, a mortuary table, a post-cremation ash grinder (originally designed for coffee beans), an iron lung machine, a torpedo for delivering medicines from the Flying Doctor planes. 
And there was a really interesting exhibition about Anne Kellerman, who I'd never heard of, but who was a fascinating combination of vaudeville star, actor, swimmer, and pioneer for women's health and fitness, and water sports. She popularised the one-piece swimming costume. And swam the Channel.
Next we visited Alexandria, another city district I'd never heard of, beyond Redfern, which Jess recommended yesterday. Specifically, she recommended the Grounds of Alexandria which, we discovered, is a former factory site surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings. It's old and brick, with a chimney, and inside its grounds is a coffee grindery (hence the name), a bakery, bar, deli, and several cafe/restaurant operations, all looking as though they've been plonked down in a garden centre. There are plants everywhere. It's really, really lovely - and I decided that, even before I found the little farm with its hens, sheep, goat, pig called Kevin Bacon, and Fluffy the macaw.
We ate at the Potting Shed, where everything is garden-themed - the burger served on a shovel blade, the cutlery in a little metal bucket, the menu clipped with a hand fork. It's fun. And the food was good, too - slow service, but there was so much to divert us, it didn't matter at all. Gorgeous place - and very popular.
And then, for our final night in Sydney, we went to the opening night of Handa Opera on the Harbour, which takes place at the edge of the Botanic Gardens on a pop-up (actually, on piles) stage over the water at Mrs Macquaries Point. The setting is gorgeous - just across the little bay is the Opera House, the Bridge and under it the lights of Luna Park, and all around the lit-up skyscrapers. The opera was Carmen, and the name was spelled out in red lightbulbs across the backdrop of the stage, making everything look even more Hollywood-artificial than ever.
There was a red carpet when we arrived, and lots of people were dressed up in bow ties and long dresses (not the same people) so we scurried along it in our ordinary clothes to take our seats with the other plebs. There were various dignitaries swanning it in the Platinum Lounge at the entrance, one of them our recently-resigned PM John Key and his wife - but everyone sat on the same hard plastic chairs when it began (though they all trailed back with red cushions after the interval).
It's a good one for the opera novice, with some real ear-worm songs, and I enjoyed it. Even the passing shower didn't dampen everyone's spirits (though there was a great rustling of plastic ponchos) - nor, fortunately, did it endanger the performers on their treacherously sloping, circular stage. They were good: there was energetic dancing, some parading about, even a bull fight, but no-one fell over despite the women's high heels, or slid into the water (though there was a life-saver listed in the programme). It was a magical way to end the trip. And the monster possum that strolled nonchalantly across the road under the lights as we queued for a taxi after? The final touch of Aussie insouciance.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


My taxi driver this morning was a Kiwi - no surprise there, really, there are 650,000 New Zealanders living in Oz - but it was a coincidence that he was from Greenhithe, where I lived until recently. So we bonded, a bit, as we sat in Sydney's morning traffic. He was taking me to the Royal Botanic Gardens to see the exhibition there in The Calyx. That's a rather impressive new display venue built on classical lines with a curve of pillars outside and an airy space inside that is currently focused on chocolate. So, universal appeal, then.
I worked my way through, obsessively reading storyboards and studying the greenery and glass cases, and learned a lot that I almost immediately forgot. Thanks to my notebook, though, I can tell you that there are a billion cacao trees out there supplying the world's needs (cocoa is a misspelling that has stuck, by the way). It's been cultivated for 5,000 years - not that we would be tempted by its gritty, unsweetened early incarnations. Nevertheless, Montezuma, the Aztec king, got through 60 cups of sludge a day - connection there with the term 'Montezuma's revenge' I'm thinking... I can't say I was tempted by the seventeenth-century Italian dish of fried liver dipped in chocolate, either. But it was a nice touch to provide a jar of the real thing at the end (though - can you believe it? - one teacher with a party of primary schoolkids ate his and then shooed the kids away. So mean). One final fact for you: the blood in the shower scene in Psycho was chocolate sauce, because it was just the right thickness to swirl down the plughole. Good exhibition - but only temporary, sorry.
My next appointment was with a Destination NSW person in the new restaurant district of Barangaroo, across from Darling Harbour. It was really busy, full of business people sitting on the terraces despite the grey weather, and I did enjoy both my lunch at and the company of Jess, who was full of good ideas for tomorrow. Then I left all these ultra-modern skyscrapers for a Barangaroo Cultural Tour with Mary back into both nature and history - although they were new, too. There used to be a huge concrete container port on the point here, beside the Bridge; but before that it was home to the Gadigal people, for just the 14,000 years before the Europeans arrived.
Now it's been restored to kind of its original state, umpteen tonnes of soil replaced and planted with 75,000 big native trees, plants and grasses, and edged by 10,000 blocks of beautiful mottled sandstone cut from the site. They've done a good job: it looks lovely and is already well used by people inserting a dose of nature into their city lives. 
Mary was a good guide, very knowledgeable about the history, the plants and their indigenous uses, and full of hope that the big open space underneath might "one day" become a national centre for Aboriginal culture - which Australia does not yet have. No comment.
In the evening we walked to the Capitol Theatre for one of the last performances of the Broadway show Aladdin before it moves to Melbourne. Fabulous! So much energy and talent on stage, and the dancing, sets and costumes were wonderfully done. It was a brilliant performance, the audience was standing-ovation enthusiastic and - than which there is no higher praise - despite having had the video on repeat for a fair chunk of our daughters' childhood, I scarcely missed Robin Williams at all.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ship to shore

It's always the same, at the end of a cruise. You've been fussed over right from the start, it's all smiles and chocolates and invitations to indulge - then, several days before the final port, the rot begins with departure instructions appearing in the room, labels for the luggage, timetable for disembarking... It always feels too soon. And finally, on the last morning, you're just an impediment to their readying the ship for the new passengers. It's kind of hurtful. You suspect that all that friendliness has just been a front - which, of course, it is. Welcome back to the real world.

And so we were bundled off the Azamara Journey at 9am and driven into the city across the splendid Anzac Bridge, for our part - I have to admit - leaving the ship behind without a backward glance, on to the next thing.
Which is, today anyway, boutique Sydney: suburbs far from the Bridge and the Opera House, with individual character, interesting oddities, and passionate people. We're based in Chippendale at the Old Clare Hotel, which has been converted from a former brewery and the pub next door, retaining much of its original structure, even down to some graffiti on the brickwork in what is now the entrance foyer, above an old safe with a bag on one shelf labelled 'Random crap'. Funky is, I think, the vibe they're going for.

The room is agreeably spacious after the snugness of our stateroom on the Azamara Journey - but some common difficulties persist. On the ship it was the coffin-like shower inside the cupboard of a bathroom; here, it's a roomy bathroom, but all made of glass, so until the steam gets going there is no privacy when showering, and, though the loo glass is frosted, there is no soundproofing. Kind of inhibiting - but since all the rooms are different, don't let that put you off staying here. Just avoid 117.
The position is great, with Spice Alley right alongside: a little lane filled with pan-Asian eateries serving through windows with shared eating spaces, hung with Chinese lanterns, decorated with murals, and busy as, everyone from students to suited businessmen. I had hot and crispy chicken ribs from Thai eatery Bang Luck; and though I learned rather more than I would have chosen to know about Otis, the son of the woman at the next table, the food was delicious, fuelling me up for the main event of the day, which was a Culture Scouts tour with Sophia.
She's an artist and enthusiast, exactly the right combination for exploring Chippendale which is full of art of all sorts, from vertical gardens to upper-end graffiti to galleries. We started with Central Park, a building with the world's tallest green wall, 34 storeys of happy plants; and then did a couple of galleries including White Rabbit, a private collection of large contemporary Chinese installations prowling with attendants happy to expatiate on their meanings. The one that mesmerised me, plastic boxes stuck on a wall with a half-circle of lights moving back and forth, throwing pretty shadows, was apparently all about impermanence and... well, a whole bunch of other stuff, apparently, that went in one ear and out the other. Wasn't it enough, just to be pretty?
The nice thing about walks like this is that it does make you look more closely at what's around you, and I was as taken by the peeling paint on an old brick Victorian house as I was with more deliberate art like the Aboriginal murals, traditional and modern, in nearby Redfern. This district has a history of racial violence (actual riots!) and crime, and is still a bit edgy, but being steadily gentrified from its previous 24/7 unsuitability for unescorted wandering. In other words, the disadvantaged indigenous people who were concentrated here have faded away - though The Block is still there. I don't mean that tediously over-excitable home renovation competition show on TV3, but an expanse of grass owned by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation that they want to build on, but have been stymied by resistance from the State government. Australia, eh. The dark side is always there. But at least they themed their Keep Out sign with the Aboriginal flag...
Moving on into Redfern's busy main street, we went into a deceptively blandly-named shop, Seasonal Concepts, which startled me with its hippo skull and just went on from there. It's a fabulous place, an artwork in its own right, filled with a gloriously eclectic collection of bizarre and beautiful things, displayed for discovery. Mounted zebra heads, 1950s coffee mugs, solar lanterns in Agee jars designed for Africa, furniture, antiques, collectibles. Proprietor Ken is always up for a natter about where he collected any item. 'Delight the Eye, Cheer the Heart' is the slogan; and it's true.
Then there was Chee Soon & Fitzgerald, another quirky little shop, specialising this time in 1950s Japanese kimono silks, rolls of dainty designs not much more than a foot wide; and other equally unusual fabrics, and china. The owner is a Kiwi from somewhere like Darfield, no doubt quite correct in his decision 30 years ago that Sydney was much more tolerant of and conducive to his somewhat alternative lifestyle than inland Canterbury.
And finally Sophia took us to The Bearded Tit, a bar that's self-consciously quirky and fairly rude, but fun all the same: a loo where the walls are covered in Jesus portraits, for example, crocheted woollen penises in the window, and a skeleton behind the bar, appropriately enough standing right next to the spirits. It was a good tour, I enjoyed it - you really can't beat wandering around with a local, especially when they have a particular interest, like Sophie and art. Recommended.
The day ended with dinner, just across the road at Olio - not Italian (so dated) but Sicilian. The hapuka was good and so was the millefoglie afterwards though, to be honest, I was so flattered by the waitress thinking from my millefeuille-influenced pronunciation that I was French, that it could have tasted like plaster and I wouldn't have noticed.


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