Friday, 2 September 2016

city bingo (final) - the bins

Sydneysiders have bins for everything, and they are everywhere. There is a whole ritual of wheeling out and wheeling in, and a happy disregard for by the binmen about what is left where after they have been through. Again, actually to easy for city bingo; would have to be only the most outrageous pile-ups.

retro lollies

We also enjoyed many of Melbourne's fab little cafes. More shabby chic than Sydney on the whole, and with a bigger retro thing going on - down to the lollies (sweets).

a quickie to Melbourne

And then I had a couple of days in Melbourne, with some lovely friends, meeting some lovely Australians. At one stage we found ourselves, quite unexpectedly, watching some acrobats; as the launch for some kind of artistic/cultural event. 


Looking back, I am also struggling to get things in order. NAIDOC Week is usually in July (I think) - standing for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. I went to an event at the university which (to me) just felt awkward and embarrassing; both partronising and only at the level of appearances. It was a raising of the Aborginal flag - a weird device in itself, since based on a particular notion of nation, land and identity that historically doesn't seem to have much to do with First Nations people anywhere in the world. Then it turned out that nobody had checked whether the flagpole worked - again just felt like an indication of how half-heartedly the university was doing this.

So - someone had the idea to drape the flag across some attendant indigenous children, and use this as a photo-opportunity with the vice-chancellor (sweet children! friendly white man! pretty flag!) and then we were served cup-cakes, flavoured with indigenous plants (aboriginal! cupcakes!) and then an 'authentic' aboriginal man played and sang, and all the white people smiled.

city bingo: mailboxes and snail mail

I may have gone on about tiny mailboxes too much - no explanation (at least not based on land, culture, history etc.) Does give the snails some extra roughage.

by gum!

What for example, can you say, when a typical tree had bark like this; bark that folds and peels like the pages of a crumpled, elderly and unkempt book?

bit foggy

Will never tire of the views over Elizabeth Bay from K's apartment. Always changing, always full of interest. As the date of this post shows, though, I have struggled to keep this blog going. Am now looking back - from the distance of London as well as in time - on my experiences in Sydney. It is still very hard to grasp what is so particular (both special and different) about this part of Australia compared to England.

It feels obvious - if a bit crass - that differences relate to the extraordinariness of the land and its toughness, to the eccentricities of the wildlife (weird types, many very loud and/or dangerous); and of course to the country's very specific history of colonisation, in its complex and dynamic patterns of exploitation and oppression, its suppression of indigenous peoples and its basis as a new nation via poor, white and previously marginalised - especially working class - groups.

This shows most immediately in the writers  but also in those amazing painters like Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley. In day-to-day life, harder to unpick.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

city bingo 4: sales staff wearing their coats indoors (1)

Can't decide if this city bingo item is a bit too easy for Sydney-siders, albeit only at this time of year, since it expresses a phenomenon so ubiquitous that locals probably don't even notice it as odd.

Although we have had some sunny days, there is definitely a noticeable chill in the air and the nights demand hot water bottles and thick blankets. I may have gone on before about the lack of heating in this city during winter (I write this huddled up to a small convector heater in my office which is doing a losing job against the cold coming through the windows). The most noticeable side effect is the range of usually elegant outer garments that people who work in shops and cafes start wearing.

Here, at the Infinity Bakery in Victoria Street (one of my favourite breakfast takeaway spots), I am now served by people in coats. 

real australians say welcome

A project to be celebrated at a time when asylum seekers - and migrants in general - are being treated appallingly; and when current global shifts are dislocating millions of people. 

secret walks

Took an amazing all day walk last weekend that started with a ferry ride to Taronga Zoo and then along the coastal path that takes itself through a bit of the Sydney Harbour National Park, wrapping around the (Middle) headland and ending up at Balmoral beach (where you can catch the bus back to the Zoo ferry stop). The weather was perfect, like a warm English summer's day, and the walking was pleasant - following the path in and out of a series of beautiful little coves.

These all overlook the south shores of central Sydney - so very much part of the city - but surprisingly quiet, and with bays mainly all to myself. With Banished and the Secret River both currently being shown on TV here, the coastal bush landscape (although much domesticated) still echoes of its small but distinctive differences from the previous worlds of British and Irish-born settlers and convicts.


The one problem being the Noisy Miners - who even have their own Birds Behaving Badly webpage. There is a gang of four to five birds who are very loud, and can aggressively attack the cat if she ventures out onto the balcony, squawking wildly and flying directly at her. Even if she is sitting inside at the window.... 

the view, the view

Finding it tough not to continually take photos from K's living room as the view across Elizabeth Bay is not only what is best about Sydney but also changes all the time in the most magical way. Easy to spend considerable time just staring out the window.

cat duty

Staying in Elizabeth Bay, looking after K's cat, making for a lovely interlude. Feeling a bit guilty about leaving my own cats back in London, but enjoying - obviously - another cat's affections.

Monday, 15 June 2015


Oh, and then we went for ‘fine dining’ just across the road to Aqua. Really recommend it, the food was just gorgeous, the view is wonderful - and being squeezed between Luna Park, an ageing Olympic style swimming pool and the Sydney Bridge seemed just about right. 

listening to the doctor

And then J and I went to hear Dr. Cornel West in the Big Top.. Such a powerful speaker - not holding back one bit on criticism of social injustice whether in Ferguson or in Redfern (where an Aboriginal Tent Embassy is currently resisting property development). He comes so strongly from that radical Baptist tradition. We were all his brothers and sisters; and love - with integrity, honesty and decency- the ultimate answer to everything. Which didn’t mean that whiteys should be allowed to hang onto their vanilla privilege.  

Supported by other amazing people -  Aboriginal activist Jenny Monro, comedian Nazeem Hussain and poet Luka Lesson. Stunning in every sense of that word..

Photos of the rides, the people, the ferries coming in, the views, everything….. 

can't believe I never...

Can’t believe I have never been to Luna Park. That enormous face with the gaping mouth and buggy eyes right next to Sydney Bridge has, to be honest, always put me off. Felt the rides and stuff behind it would be mundane in comparison, and certainly not up to the glorious decrepitude of Coney Island in New York. Plus, I really hate going on fairground rides - I get very sick very quickly, to the extent that even looking at big dippers etc., makes me a bit queasy. But, weirdly, Dr. Cornel West (African-American scholar and activist) was giving a public talk at the Big Top, Luna Park (yes, that is what I said) so I went early to take pictures at twilight. And of course it was a magical place - both in its own right as a fading, small but determined amusement park and as a location to look back at Sydney Harbour and Opera House. Took photos until my battery ran out.  

back to cockatoo

Now I am back in Sydney after the trip,  beginning to plan my next moves, jobs etc. Most immediately is to make sure that I see as many things as I can before I leave. Places I have previously missed or done  momentarily. So last Saturday was Cockatoo Island and Luna Park. I love Cockatoo Island, a very relaxed way to walk about in the layers of Sydney convict and industrial heritage. Already planning to go to the Underbelly Festival, glamp on the island, and to hire a tinny* from there.

Tinny - Australian slang for a little aluminium boat, usually with an outboard on the back


Feel like I have not stopped since I got back from China, and couldn't decide if going off to a writers’ retreat for a couple of days was going to be productive or exhausting. But turned out to be wonderful; fantastic group of people in an lovely building - part of the Bundanon Trust - designed by Glenn Murcutt with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark. Everyone worked quietly and studiously each day and then shared dinner and conversation. Perfect. And domesticated but hilly bush to walk in, with enough kangaroos and wombats around to trip over.


Made a plan to come back on the ferry from Manley after dark to see Vivid around Circular Quay; lots of light installations and projections onto buildings (including the Opera House). Of course incredibly crowded and the folks pretty jet-lagged, but did enjoy extraordinary series of animations onto the Customs House, entitled enchanted Sydney

chips on the beach (again)

Great to have friends here for a week. As always an opportunity to be a proper tourist again, interspersed with - as always with Z - plotting lots of future project together. Seemed to spend a lot of time in the Coogee Pavilion, but also took the ferry to Manley and did the fish-and-chips-on-the-beach-at-sunset-thing.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

getting modern

That adaption to the modern world is pretty interesting, and has its own qualities. On many street corners are piles of parcels - the impact of online purchase. But postmen are not allowed to deliver direct to student residences. So the parcels gather, and their owners come here to hunt for them. 

at the university

I had the real privilege and pleasure to meet up with M (and E) at Fudan University, and to spend time with her and some of her students. Whilst Mao still watches over events, it feels like a place that is also moving fast.  

and one more

Have to mention the Shanghai Museum as well. Perfect size for visitors for summing up the cultural artefacts that define China. Like almost everywhere I went, very busy with almost entirely Chinese tourists. Several young pioneer groups - brought into the 21st century but the huge array of media equipment being used. (The young people in this shot were being 'arranged' by their teacher for an endless series of photos and videos, in between photographing each other with their phones.) *

* Because China is so central to the production of 21st century technology, everyone I knew assumed that technology would be rampant. Well it is and it isn't. The government blocking of everything from Google to Dropbox is making usage patchy (or based only on Chinese apps). Or - like some of the students I talked to - blocking turns out to be a pretty dumb solution since you can just get a VPN. 

another favourite

And whilst we are doing my favourite tourist places in Shanghai, I have to mention the Urban Planning Exhibition Center. A fantastic mix of left-over heroic communist iconography (and centralist planning) together with some really interesting exhibitions about the history of the city, all wrapped around an atrium containing a massive 3-D model of the city.

jade buddha

Of course, Shanghai also has its traditional side. A must-see is the still actively used Jade Buddha Temple. Don't know how these buildings and all their treasures survived the communist period. 

alternative arts

Liu Dao is an international multi-dsciplinary electronic arts collective based at island6, in the on-trend ex-industrial warehouse complex called M50. (You can also often see their staff at White Rabbit in Sydney.) Their work makes  me laugh - an irreverent take on what happens when you muck around with technology, light and animation to make emotional and social comment. My favourite (which does not reproduce well as a photograph so is not here) is of a woman standing up cramped within a vertical thin picture frame that she endlessly dusts from the inside.


As with much of China, development in this city is happening very fast. There is some preservation activity - two areas of historic long tangs, Xintiandi and Tianzifang, have been adapted into commercial areas of tiny shops, that maintain the traditional longtang pattern of labyrinth-like alleyways with a limited number of exits to the main streets. You can take your pick on whether this is better than re-development, or just leaves a pastiche.

Meanwhile, sights like the one above, are also pretty typical.


Might have been partly because I had a really good lonely planet guide, or because Beijing is much stuffier and more 'historic' (although this seems to suggest not); but managed some great cross-sectional walks across Shanghai, threading through a whole series of interesting variations of colonial, shikumen and longtang patterns. Including streets lined with plane trees, shading pavements where commerce spills out, mixing bicycle mending and contemporary pottery in a very charming way.  


And then to Shanghai and a walk to the Bund. Arrived on a truly blade-runner day, greyed out with pollution and then overlaid with a torrential horizontal rain. Plus, of course, massive numbers of people, going in every direction on every variety of wheeled vehicle and in a wild variety of wet weather gear, much of it improvised. A perfect chaotic and crazy city from my point of view, loved it at once. 

beijing park

All very happy to have survived, and gotten back to Beijing without much damage. The others went off on what turned out to be a very long hike of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (both of which I have already been to), so I took myself off to the Olympic Park to see the Birds Nest Stadium. Lovely day out, everyone else out too, obviously still very much used - although bit strange to be in that weirdly over-sized hard landscape that you can get in the aftermath of dealing with Olympic crowd numbers. 

more and more Wall

Days 3 and 4 seemed easier in comparison; although still quite testing. Amazing privilege to walk sections of the wall that would not normally have been possible as a tourist, and glorious to be in places where there was no one else. The views from each beacon watchtower were worth all the fear. And even the repaired section still quite empty: what a sight to have all to yourself (well in the midst of a lovely - and often quite rambunctious - group!).

in honour of Mr Lee (2)

I have much to thank our guide for. On the most difficult - and completely scary - section, he let me put my hand on his shoulder and walked me across, not really understanding why I was so stupid but happy to help. I might still be there if he hadn't done that. 

in honour of Mr. Lee (1)

Our Chinese farmer guide must have thought we were hilarious. We had fancy walking boots and backpacks and water-bottles ("at least 3 litres for each day") and slandered ourselves liberally in sun-cream and had lots of snacks in case we got hungry. And we needed to stop a lot.  He had an umbrella and a flask of tea. A tote bag to carry these items was all that was added on 'harder' days. And of course, he would run backwards and forwards in his ill-fitting plastic bootees sorting out our problems whilst we huffed and puffed and felt very pleased indeed with what we were achieving.

meeting the Wall

Hard to describe the walking - or rather scrambling - along the top of the wall. I knew it would be challenging and much more uneven terrain than the repaired bits you see in tourist photos.  Also knew it went up and down a lot along the summits of a never-ending range of sharp edged and deep-valleyed hills. But was not expecting to clamber over rubble. Or walk across very thin ledges with steep drops to either side. Or negotiating narrow sections and the various scrubby trees and bushes they now support. Or sliding down loose gravel with nothing to hold onto. (All of course, all also either steeply up or steeply down).

And although I had thought about getting fit (and was very happy to keep up with the mainly younger front-runners) for some reason it never quite percolated that walking ton the top of the Great Wall of China involved heights. And that I get vertigo. And worse than I realised.

So pleased someone lent me a walking pole, and really appreciated the willingness of my companions to take it in turns to walk close in front of me on the more terrifying sections, so I could look at their feet rather than over the edge. And turned out to feel like a truly amazing thing to do, exhilarating and meditative all at the same time. 


The first of 3 camp sites, all on farmers' land right up against the Wall. Which traces the top of the hills in seemingly every direction,almost always in view. And as extraordinary as could be, not reduced by all that unavoidable prior knowledge. I am a camping kind of person (love the opportunity not to have to wash much) but definitely wished I had taken an extra blanket. 

first lunch

… and still torrential rain as we arrived in Beijing. Slightly anxious moment at the airport where I worried I might not find the group I was travelling with, so many people, but of course they stood out as as interestingly miscellaneous bunch of people with massive walking boots, unwieldly rucksacks and ridiculous (Marie Curie Charity) daffodil badges and tee-shirts. Transported to a hotel located in a hutong right in the central district, so amazing location from which to get very very wet. Hid in a shopping mall for most of the time. Then off the next day to the Wall, about 3 hours on a coach, and still a boundary to the Beijing region (we crossed backwards and forwards across the security barrier many times). First 'authentic' meal by which I mean away from the extravagant glitz and enormity of Beijing, with everything much more basic and grubby. Also reminder of the ubiquitous thermos flask (for tea), plastic bowl (for washing) and requirement for a personal toilet paper supply and a good sense of humour around toilet facilities. 

Followed by amazing 'practice' walk, steeply up and then along beside the wall for a few hours. Beautiful. 

Friday, 8 May 2015

umbrella carnage

What seems like weeks and weeks of rain...

sydney tower

Following a spa and massage, more eating: this time we seemed to just order meat (!) with cocktails at the top of the Sydney tower, rotating slowly as the sun went down.

birthday treats

...and then back to Sydney and my birthday; celebrations at work, and a lovely afternoon out with K, beginning with our favourite, gluten-free afternoon tea.

out on the river

We also went on an amazing boat trip to the mouth of the Murray river; and then stayed overnight in Victor Harbour. I know I missed a day spent in bed with an appalling cold, but I also seem to have lost all my photos. Hope to get back to this.

in the med? (2)

And then, after exploring some good and some less good South Australian beaches, we went to a famous restaurant called the Star of Greece. We both got very over-excited about eating Greek food, which was stupid as it is named after a famous shipwreck. Food still amazing, and view just wonderful.

in the med? (1)

Then we visited the McLaren Vale - a completely beautiful wine-making area that reminded me of the Europe, where yet again I mainly ended up with photos of letterboxes (with a good line in this region of homemade variations). 

adelaide and beyond

So we parted company at Adelaide, and E and P went onto Perth. And K and I carried on eating, here at the fabulous Peel Street restaurant.

a little story

The Broken Hill tour and the Terra Nullius book have got me thinking a lot about stories - about the kind of stories that get told about a place, particularly to its tourists and visitors (and in a way, therefore to the inhabitants themselves) something I will be returning to.

So here is my anecdote: that says something about that weird intersection between what feels like an unbelievably ancient land and the way the most recent settlers cruise across its surface. At one moment on the train, as I was watching out of the window idly staring at mile after mile of scrub and orange-brown soil, I saw 3 emus  appear from nowhere and cross the long straight road running parallel to the train tracks. This in the middle of an empty plain. And at that precise moment an ute  drove past (the first vehicle I had seen for 20 minutes). The first and second emus got by, but the third, thrown into a panic, turned back and was hit a glancing blow, such that it flew up into the air. I saw feathers explode and the emu hit the ground - and then the train had gone by.

And then nothing for ages.

the weirdness of broken hill

As part of the journey, we got to stop at Broken Hill, once a boom town for mining, and now - still a mining town but more normal. Well, I say normal, but the whole sojourn felt quite surreal; and not just because we were woken up before dawn (after not sleeping the previous night due to it being a train and all) and were a little lagging. First, we were driven around almost every street in a bus, up and down the small town grid, being shown absolutely everything - some of it twice. I kid you not, we were even introduced to the Coles supermarket as an exciting event; all given out in full chatty and obvious jokes compere mode. Which was followed by a murmured repeat across the whole bus, due to a larger than usual number of older, hard-of-hearing people who needed to be told all over again by their nearest and dearest.

Then, at some unclear point, we were driven to the waste earth/slag heap piled up by the town, on top of which has been built a miner's memorial, in honour of those who had died. A mixture of poignant and community hall, with volunteers serving scones and tea. But also, since I had been reading a book called Terra Nullius on the train, also echoed strangely of missing - indigenous -voices. Neither the tour nor the memorial plaques contained any reference to aboriginal history or people, a whole world ignored and marginalised. 

At the same time, there was another absence - the fact that all the time we were at the memorial, we were walking on top of a working mine, and the tough hard work that continues to involve.

off on the indian-pacific

And then, most amazing of all, we got on the Indian-Pacific train (a fabulous birthday treat from E). They went all the way to Perth, K and I as far as Adelaide. Brilliant, quite old-fashioned (although none of the guests would have been right in an Agatha Christie novel) and a great, lazy way to see the scenery go by.

more city bingo 1: ineffectual mail receptacles (3)

P, meanwhile, became a contributor to city bingo – like me he now has a large number of letterbox photos from Sydney.