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My plan to reblog the best of came a cropper as soon as I put it in place. I was distracted by a quick trip to Saskatoon and a few other obligations. I’m back to work, now, and while I am not as reliable as a Swiss train, I’ll pull into the station on time.

Down Under

Chugging along on a boat in Hong Kong harbour is an odd place to get intrigued by the architecture of a train station in Melbourne, but it happened. The weather was miserable. Neil, an old friend from our days in Hong Kong, had seized on the excuse of visitors to gather a few friends, drink some gin and tonics, and gab.

One of Neil’s British buddies had slipped away that afternoon from a high pressure job as managing director of a substantial HK based corporation.  His company had just purchased the business that supplied the roof of Southern Cross Station. He talked of the architecture in awe inspiring terms. “The station is the roof,” he said.

The original train station was called Batman’s Hill (after John Batman, one of founders of Melbourne). It was later changed to Spencer Street Station. In 1856 it became the Melbourne terminus of Victorian railways…

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It is winter here in Melbourne, the rainy season.  We have come full circle, living among students at University College on the University of Melbourne campus.  It was the very first place we stayed when we came to Australia over eight years ago.  I read an amusing memoir a few years back about an American TV comedy writer who lost his job and decided to “retire” at the age of 28.  He went to Florida, of course, moving in with an elderly piano teacher in a retirement village since he was too young to buy a condo.  He signed up for softball and shuffleboard and tried to fit in with people twice his age.  The young students here seem to tolerate us, but I suspect our gray hair renders us more-or-less invisible most of the time.  This was a Women’s College originally, which shows up in the attractive flower gardens and the extraordinary effort to make food for two hundred residents both nutritious and palatable.  

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We sometimes see students who think nothing of wearing their pajamas to dinner.  Monday and Tuesday, however, they all wear black gowns for “high table.”  Their tradition goes back to Oxford and Cambridge, where a table was set on a dias for the master and fellows of the college who sat, quite literally, above the undergraduates, no doubt engaging in scintillating conversation about arcane subjects.  It actually pre-dates the Middle Ages, when families co-habited with servants and animals and members needed to eat above the others if they hoped to eat at all.  At high table here, the students are served their dinners and allowed to partake of wine, but the noise level in the hall has driven us to fetching our dinner plates beforehand, like elderly orphans begging for scraps.

We are recently back from a sabbatical sojourn in Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  When my professor spouse first mentioned the invitation to speak to a gathering in Quebec City, we were living in Washington DC and Montreal was our very next stop.  The timing of the talk didn’t register until I put it on my calendar.  It was for April 8, five weeks after our scheduled return from the sabbatical.  If push came to shove, you could get from Montreal to Quebec City by dog sled during the winter we just endured.  Melbourne, on the other hand, is not even in the same hemisphere as Quebec.  To get to Quebec City requires getting on at least two planes for nearly 24 hours and passing the time between meals reading or watching a movie or two or six or annoying your seat mate with your life history in excruciating detail.  I try to spend most of my time sleeping.  

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Melatonin is a hormone made by your body’s pineal gland, which is inactive during the day, but begins to produce melatonin when the sun goes down.  Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert.  With any luck, you get very sleepy.  This helps regulate circadian rhythms, the “body clock,” which gets upset when you start whizzing around the planet at 550 miles per hour.  The pills you buy over the counter are usually lumped with vitamins or herbal medicines and are completely unregulated. They can give you very weird dreams and I would not suggest taking them, but they do make sleep possible during jet sitting jaunts of long duration.  I am a jet sitter, not a setter.  Setters are dogs.

We booked seats on a Qantas flight to LA, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, then flew up to Montreal the next morning where we stayed put for nearly a week.  With that recovery time, the talk in Quebec was just about doable.  

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I’m sure most people drive or fly from Montreal to Quebec City, but the train is infinitely preferable to either.  You check your bags in the station and get meal service if you book business class.  There is wi-fi and a large window to watch the world flying by at a reasonable trot.  There is the seductive rocking of the coach as it rolls through the countryside.  It was Spring, officially, but still plenty of snow on the ground.  

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The narrowing of the St Lawrence River below Cap-Diamant (Cape Diamond)  provided the name given to the city.  Kébec,  an Algonquin word, means “where the river narrows.”  Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain,  Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and a major tourist destination in Canada. The ramparts surrounding the old city (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls north of Mexico. The city of half a million is the capital of the province and home to Laval University, the venue for my wife’s talk.  I had been there only once before, on our rather casual honeymoon in the middle of December twenty-eight years ago.  

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The City is known for its fine food and French Canadian charm.  On this trip, we were fortunate enough to get a lot of both.  Our University professor hostess went out of her way to make us feel welcome.  Even though some sites, such as the Fortress, were not really open for tourists, I was glad we were not there at the height of the season.  The old city is small enough to be overwhelmed by millions of camera-happy visitors like me.  

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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was one of the most important engagements in North American history.  It was a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in the United States.  The battle began on the 13th of September 1759.  It was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City on lands originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin.  The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France. It decided the future of Canada.  

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General James Wolfe’s plan of attack depended on secrecy and surprise. A small party of men would land by night on the north shore, climb a tall cliff and overpower the garrison that protected a small road, allowing 5,000 soldiers to ascend the cliff by the road and then deploy for battle on the plateau.  The culmination of a three-month siege by the British and several aborted forays, the battle lasted only fifteen minutes. British troops successfully resisted the advance of the French soldiers and militia under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.  Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe received three gunshot wounds that ended his life within minutes of the beginning of the engagement and Montcalm died the next morning after receiving a musket ball wound just below his ribs.

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In the wake of the battle, the French evacuated the city and their remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from the British. While the French forces continued to fight and prevailed in several battles after Quebec City was captured, the British never relinquished heir hold on the virtually impregnable Citadelle.  With the Treaty of Paris, France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in 1763.  

We have a friend who grew up here.  During the Winter Festivals in January and February, he would take part in one of the most grueling events of the season— ice canoeing across the Saint Lawrence.  It is the only way to cross the swollen river when there is too much ice for ferries, but not enough to form an ice bridge.   Crews of five athletes alternately push their canoe across the ice on the frozen parts of the river, and row in the open water with currents of four knots and tides of over 15 feet, encountering ice blocks weighing a few tons.   Our peaceful ferry ride across to Levy is as close as we will come to the practice,  

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The talk was well received and we were soon winging our way from Quebec to Toronto in time to board a giant Cathay Pacific jet bound for Hong Kong, a slight detour on our way back to Melbourne.  We used to live in Hong Kong but the city is changing fast.  The airport is brilliant and there are even more stunning skyscrapers but the air pollution seems worse.  I don’t imagine the air quality in the Special Administrative Region is at the top of PRC’s concerns about Hong Kong.  The so-called “umbrella revolution,” the pro-democracy demonstrations must have put China’s leaders out of joint.  

The reason for the Asian stopover was an invitation to address yet another group of students, and to introduce my wife’s new book—  “International Capital Markets :  Law and Institutions” to the Asian market.  

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We didn’t have a host or any other appointments other than the talk, neither did we have a week to get our brains and bodies back on Hong Kong time.  We took it easy,  threading our way through the intricate maze of walkways and roads observing colorful people and noisy birds.  Each morning we woke to the eerie calls of gibbons, sounding out their loud calls from Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a stone’s throw away from our hotel.  

My wife caught up with one of her friends and I caught up with one of mine— How Man Wong.  He has a small  but effective outfit called China Exploration and Research Society, now based in a village  at the south-east tip of Hong Kong Island called Shek O. Finding How Man “at home” is quite a trick, since he is almost always on the move.  I was lucky.  Catching up on the most recent of activities of CERS took half a day, and  I was only getting a superficial picture.  While his main focus remains on China and the Tibetan plateau, he has been venturing into Myanmar, Bhutan and even Cuba.  Recording the adventures of 102 year-old pilots who flew over the Himalayas and supplied China during WW II;  trying to save freshwater dolphins in the Irrawaddy River with a cell phone message from Jackie Chan;  repatriating Burmese cats to Myanmar and honoring Cuban-born performers of Chinese opera.  His work boggles the mind.   Check out the website— and see for yourself.  

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Three days later we were back with Cathay Pacific logging nine more hours in a tube from morning ’till night, flying on the backs of ancient plants and decomposed dinosaurs.  From late spring to the beginning of winter.  

We are in College now, back to our morning walks around Princes Park, petting the resident cat and lining up for meals in the dining hall.  The motto at University College is Frappe Fort or “Strike Hard,” which has been re-translated by the administrators to make it sound less threatening, a little less like something out of “Game of Thrones,” —  The politically correct version is:  “What you do, do with a will.”  Even if it involves indecently long periods spent on airplanes, waking up to Gibbon calls and loading up on Melatonin.  

Who can argue with that?  

The meaning of place has a special hold on the Australian psyche. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the arrival of European settlers is recent in terms of world history and the decimation of the native, aboriginal cultures so complete. The founding of Melbourne only dates back to 1835, nearly fifty years after the establishment of the first settlement in Sydney. A mere 179 years ago, this city was an illegal squatter’s camp on the banks of the Yarra River populated by Tasmanian adventurers looking to exploit greener pastures to the North. Now, the city of Melbourne is “up itself,” that peculiar and charming Aussie expression meaning to think highly of one’s station in life.




Melbourne is singled out every year by the Economist magazine as the best place in the world in which to live. Recent immigration has favoured Melbourne over Sydney, the city that put Australia on the world map. Melbourne hosts festival after festival, sometimes in the same week. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival started February 28 and lasts for another week. Yesterday was the first day of this Labour Day weekend’s Moomba Festival, an event popular with families thanks to its longevity (60 years), its parade, fireworks and hilarious “Birdman” competition. The Australian Grand Prix competition takes place next weekend with its crowds, screaming engines, squealing rubber and pungent smell of fuel.



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The event that captured my attention is called, simply, Melbourne Now. It is a challenging and fascinating look at the city through the eyes of its artists. The exhibition spans both the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) and the NGV International. It is a sampling of design and art as well as an aesthetic look at the city as place and performance, an urban area that is geographically specific and yet globally enmeshed. From the tiny village of squatters, Melbourne has never stopped growing, now covering a vast area larger than the combined size of Moscow, Paris and London.  Despite the strain, Melbourne is still serviced by trains, trams and buses, although it is increasingly congested at “rush hour”, overrun with automobiles.


I was captivated by one long video installation piece– a DVD by a New Zealand artist named Daniel Crooks. It is called “An Embroidery of Voids.” He takes the celebrated alleyways of Melbourne as his theme and welcomes us on a magical journey through the lanes in dreamlike sequences that never seem to end. It is one seemingly coherent tracking shot, splicing and rearranging familiar environments into a haunting vision of the everyday transfigured into something new, altogether surreal.



Other artists are playful, documenting performance pieces with hoola hoops or the release of 10,000 paper airplanes in the reading room of Melbourne’s State Library, a venue I visited in the last post about White Night. Charlie Sofo’s video of “33 objects that can fit through the hole in my pocket” brings us up short with its crisply humorous look at all the things that we live with, and often lose.

Brook Andrew’s “Beyond Tasmania, 2013” invites us to contemplate the extermination of the original Tasmanians and the display of their skeletons in support of questionable theories about evolution and eugenics. A wooden sculpture gives the skull a symbolic gramophone, one last chance to be heard.




Siri Hayes captures the self obsession of our species with a stunning, staged photograph inspired by the French Impressionists and the Romantic landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In her work, plein air painters ignore the devastation around them, drawn only to the naked Adonis on display.

Melbourne Now is a brilliant and fascinating exhibit, entirely free and on for two more weeks only. If you don’t live here, there is an ebook you can download or view on-line. Check out my pics on Flickr by clicking on any photo running alongside this post.



The distinctive architecture of Melbourne took on bizarre and beautiful hues Saturday night. It was the second annual “White Night,” Melbourne’s take on the concept that started in St. Petersburg, spread to Paris, then on to dozens of other cities. White night generally refers to the days in the upper latitudes which are are longest during the days around the summer solstice. In Melbourne, the night was every colour that the prism has to offer except white, splashed on to Victorian era buildings and bridges as well as trees and water and sky. It was a night when three hundred artists were busy with their technicolor paintbrushes and one eighth of the city came out to play.


This city’s White Night event started last year and attracted millions, so this year they decided to spread out the venues. Yours truly was not up to the task of visiting all one hundred sites or even close, but you are welcome to read a good account of one reporter who made a valiant time to dance the night away. Check it out before it disappears.



After a long but orderly queue, I was fortunate enough to get into the rotunda of the State Library for a fascinating display of various viruses projected around the octagonal room with information on the status of the virus as a killer, past and present. Then it was down Swanston Street until the crush of bodies brought me to a complete halt. It was like being in an overpacked subway station. For what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than a few minutes, nobody could move. I finally got to a side street and peeled off to make my way down to Flinders Station, the heart of the City.





Once I was on the South bank of the Yarra, the hordes eased up. It is estimated that around half a million people made it into the CBD (Central Business District) for the Lorikeet coloured evening. Astonishingly, there were only ten arrests. But the police were not much in evidence where I wandered, so that could account for it. Needless to say, transport was a problem. I came down by tram, which stopped well before its normal destination at Flinders Station. Trying to get home about 12:30, the trams were jammed. I managed to get on the second one and a young man to whom I will be forever grateful gave this old guy his seat.


A new piece in today’s “Age” suggests that “White Night” may be a victim of its own success. During the morning peak hours most train lines run services every 10 minutes or more often, trams more frequently. After the New Year’s Eve fireworks trains run at least every 15 minutes out of the city, with half-hourly services later in the morning. On White Night, passengers were expected to cram onto mostly half-hourly train services and trams every 20 minutes before 1am and then half hourly until morning.


Thanks to the alarming accounts of Saturday night bar brawls spreading into the streets, I have long been wary of going into the CBD on Saturday night without having a specific destination. But White Night itself was remarkably peaceful and almost orderly. It was also spectacular and fun. Still, after the wait for the tram and the long ride home, I was very grateful to be back in bed.

We have settled into a dull routine here, I’m afraid. Even though the tax work is done, my good wife has conscripted me to help with the book she is under deadline to complete by the end of the month. I have been looking for something new to blog about and it occurred to me that I have accumulated a lifetime (seven years) of material, so it may be time to start plagiarising myself. All the best writers do. Spring has sprung here in Melbourne and I have written about that before. At this time of year we see almost every kind of weather, from sun to rain, clouds and clear skies, all in the same day. Today is quite spectacular.

From 2007, “The birds go berserk at this time of year. The squawkers get up at first light, but they also make sure you know when the sun is going down. Magpies dive-bomb cyclists under the mistaken impression that their nests are under attack. Lorikeets and parrots fly in colourful formations, but the bell birds are my favourites. Riding through trees full of bell birds is like being delivered into a temple in Bangkok. The tones are resonant and beautiful and stay with you long after the birds have gone.”



In September of 2007, we made our first big trip in Australia– up to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree. Our daughter was with us then and she is back with us now, so it seems appropriate to start this re-blogging exercise with that holiday. It was a pricey trip, but we saw some spectacular countryside. We flew up to Cairns, then rented a small car to travel North to the chic, quiet little town of Port Douglas. The rainy season was still a month or two off and the lethal, stinging jellyfish were waiting for their cue to come toward shore and scare the living daylights out of swimmers. As if huge, saltwater crocodiles can’t do the job.

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We chose a relatively small, snorkelers-only boat to visit the reef. A limit of thirty passengers meant we were unlikely to get left behind and we were virtually guaranteed individual attention. The trip out on the Coral Sea was an all day event. Port Douglas is the closest town to the reef, but it takes two hours to reach the reef from the small, busy harbour. There are 2900 separate fringing reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef, all under fairly constant threat from mining companies bent on trashing a World Heritage Site in order to increase revenues and dividends for their shareholders and supply more coal to China.

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Fortunately, the weather was fine. Unfortunately, the brand new underwater housing I had purchased for the trip did not allow me to actually see what I was shooting. I aimed, shot and hoped for the best. Pixels are cheap. It didn’t occur to me that I might actually snap the shutter 150 times and then spend hours on the computer trying to turn fairly drab results into sparkling, colourful photos. With digital photography, all that requires is patience.

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The reef stretches for about 2300 kilometres, supporting the most diverse ecosystem in the world. All thanks to a tiny critter called the polyp. Its proclivity for warm, clear water and the sturdy support of Australia’s large continental shelf make these ideal waters

After our trip to the reef, we headed North again, up into the Daintree area of the rainforest. We settled in at our lovely Bed and Breakfast within walking distance of Cow Bay beach. There are no hydroelectric lines north of Daintree river. Every home and business has to have a generator or solar power. Needless to say, we turned in early, grateful for the sunlight that fed the batteries that powered our reading lamps.

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Despite its poor soil base, the rainforest covers about 1200 square kilometres. Its plant diversity is unrivalled in Australia. Some species date back 110 million years when the continent was much more humid than it is now. There are trees that may be unchanged from the time of Gondwana. While the trees, ferns, vines and other greenery is stunning, the animal life inhabiting this world is difficult to spot. A private zoo in Port Douglas makes all but the shyest creatures accessible. We arrived in time to see a stork making lunch out of another bird’s chick, so the visit was not entirely without distress, but it was fascinating.

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Cassowaries are among the few diurnal creatures in the rainforest. They are huge, scary-looking birds. The males raise the young. Since they have the talons, size and sometimes the inclination to rip unwary humans wide open, visitors are encouraged to keep their distance. They are a key species to the rainforest, the only animals capable of eating large fruit, such as cassowary plums, and dispersing the seeds with a nice pile of fertiliser. Someone with a clever hand doctored a speed bump sign at a Cassowary crossing point to encourage motorists to slow down for the big birds. The end message gets the point across bluntly, but some motorists need that.

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We took advantage of our carefree days of relaxation and exploration to go swimming, walking, bicycling, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, and kayaking. It seemed like each beach was more inviting than the next; each boardwalk through the rainforest beckoned with an air of mystery. It was our first major expedition out of Melbourne, an enchanting visit to the land at the top of the continent down under.

Here is a simple breakdown of the seasons in the Southern hemisphere. Summer: December to February; Autumn: March to May; Winter: June to August; Spring: September to November. This is a rough comparison. Australia is almost the same size as the continental United States and has a number of different climate zones. Up in Queensland and in the Kimberley, it is simply “dry” or “wet.” It gets very, very wet up there even though this is the driest continent on the planet. Summers are hot.

One of the most attractive features of this neighbourhood is its proximity to the Maribyrnong River. We can go for a walk along its banks morning, noon or night, rain or shine. It is best to get out early now that Spring is here. The afternoons are often turbulent, bringing wind and showers. When the sun is out, there are often a few runners gliding along in shorts and tights. The birds and frogs are definitely convinced it is time to find a mate. The water gives off an opaque sheen, often looking a muddy brown. When Melbourne came into its own as a real city, the Maribyrnong river was an industrial sewer. Now, there are fishermen.


The river that put Melbourne on the map is called the Yarra. It was the river of entry to this whole area. I have been making my way slowly through a fascinating historical book called: “1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia,” by James Boyce. it appears the landscape underlying this city has been so transformed that it would be virtually unrecognisable to any aboriginal or early settler. The Yarra River, from the Botanic Gardens to Port Phillip Bay now flows through an almost entirely artificial channel.

Two hundred years ago, the lower Yarra was dominated by swamps, lakes and lagoons. The river was tidal up to a rocky ledge where Queen’s Bridge now stands. At that point the river was ninety-metres wide (about 270 feet) wide. The ledge acted as a barrier, ensuring that upstream of the rocks there would be a permanent source of fresh water.


“Of all Australia’s major cities, the natural environment of Melbourne before British settlement is perhaps the most difficult now to imagine. This is in part a product of the city’s size and flat topography, but also reflects the extent to which the the region was dominated by swamps and grasslands – the two ecosystems that were most comprehensively transformed by conquest.”


What attracted the settlers from Tasmania (then known as Van Diemien’s Land), was the open grassland to the west and north of the site of what is now called Melbourne. Those vast, temperate grasslands have almost completely vanished. What impelled the first settlers to come here was the exhaustion of good grassland in Tasmania. Convicts and ex-convicts had been living there independently since 1805, and the Crown had been generous with land allotments in the early days of settlement.

The aboriginals had been forcibly removed and there were no dingoes, so the problem was white people. Most of the land was too wet or wooded for pastoral pursuits. The vast “empty” grasslands just across the Bass Straits on the souther coast of Australia was a natural magnet.



It would be an illegal settlement, of course, since the settlers would be occupying Crown land, but the Governor of Tasmania saw it as the perfect opportunity to do the local aboriginals a favour, noting that “nothing would individually afford me greater satisfaction than being instrumental in aiding in the occupation of the coat by means which might tend to secure the protection and promote the civilisation of the Aborigines.” In addition, England could count on a vast new supply of wool and yet another potential “home” for shipping undesirables.



In the end, the Crown turned a blind eye to the brazen new settlement, instantly negating a policy of restrained growth. Between 1835 and 1838, more land and people were conquered than in the preceding half-century. By the end of the 1840’s squatters had taken twenty million hectares of the most productive Aboriginal homelands. It was one of the fastest land occupations in the history of empires.

All this came with the founding of Melbourne, a bold trespass that changed history.


The paucity of text and pics during the last month might lead readers to believe that I bagged the blog and succumbed to writerly exhaustion, death or taxes. Well, I did fall prey to taxes, unfortunately. This is tax season in the Antipodes. But after the annual go around with the numbers and receipts our activity level and enjoyment picked right up.

The Melbourne Festival kicked in with the installation of a kindergarten full of alarmingly tall, one-ton, black cherubs with reptilian tails and wings. They arrived courtesy of a Russian art collective, which had previously set them loose in Lille, France. Prominently placed in downtown Melbourne, the six meter (20 foot) shiny black babies gave pedestrians good reason to pause and stare. They looked ready to pounce, mischievous and not at all angelic.


The rest of the Festival could not compare to the dramatic presence of those enormous angel/demons, but a theatrically-oriented arranger and composer of Indian music certainly did his best. His set, inspired by the red-light district in Amsterdam as well as Hollywood Squares and Bollywood movies, played a stunning counterpart to the bewitching folk and classical music from Rajisthan.


Then there was “Hedda Gabbler,” performed with dazzling panache by a renowned German troupe from Berlin. They turned Ibsen’s claustrophobic play into a modern fable of psychopathic obsession. With the ultra-modern set spinning like the events on stage, it was hard to know if the conceit really worked or not, but I was rooted to my seat. We followed that up with an Edinburgh Fringe Festival favorite– The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. This one deconstructed Hamlet with three actors auditioning for the role, two well-trained, live Great Danes, and a scene in which actors pop in and out of garbage bins. The piece passed me by as “Much Ado about Nothing,” but it was our fourth night out.


Then our guests arrived. We have known each other a couple of decades now, first in Montreal, later as next-door neighbors in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia. After a long career as an educator and director of a day care, Barbara has launched a new career doing workshops in “challenging behavior” mostly in North America, occasionally overseas. This year she landed a three-day workshop in Melbourne hard on the heels of one in Singapore. While our respective wives worked, I introduced Martin to the sights and sounds of the City.


I had made firm plans for one outing during their stay at our place, up into Spa country with a stop at Hanging Rock (for a picnic, of course,) followed by a visit to one of the Gold towns. In the meantime, Barbara had been urged by some of her “students” to go down the Mornington Peninsula for a visit to wine country. It seemed simple enough. We could go down on Friday, avoiding the weekend crowds. What I hadn’t counted on was the very beginning of the four-day weekend heralding the “Race that Stops the Nation,” – the Melbourne Cup. In a version of hell reminiscent of my worst memories of Los Angeles, our arrival back to Melbourne corresponded exactly with everyone else’s attempts to flee via the Westgate Bridge.


Hanging Rock seemed to have moved. I concluded that after driving in circles for a good half hour in a vain attempt to find the back road that led us there on one of our first outings after we bought a car. We eventually got decent directions at a tourist information centre, learning that a craft festival was in progress so our entry fee would be reduced. Unfortunately, the weather gods had picked that day to be taking their cues from the demons. What with the wind and the rain, the craft fair was a far cry from the thriving place it should have been. One soaking after another dissuaded us from tackling the strange, spooky mountain.


Our accommodation, at least, was all we could have hoped. We had booked two cottages at a place called Bodidharma in Shepherd’s Flat, out on the border of the bush. My wife and I had stayed there once before, and been charmed by the ambience. With fresh pasta from the fair and a couple bottles of wine from town, we settled in to keep watch for boxing kangaroos. It was sparring season, apparently, but they were shy. We had to settle for the DVD of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” long walks, and a fascinating discussion of the rewards and perils of bush life and the prospects of reincarnation.


The next day we drove up to Maldon, one of the best preserved of the small gold towns in the area. A folk festival was in progress, so the town’s population had probably doubled that very day, not unlike the actual days of the gold mine boom. The discovery of gold happened in 1853. At least 20,000 miners flocked to the area, working the alluvial deposits. Within a year the surface gold was largely exhausted, and by the next year, only 2,000 miners remained.


After a hearty lunch, we attempted to orient ourselves and follow a map with a walking tour of the town’s architectural gems. It took in more territory than we thought possible, but the founders of Maldon had no reason to think the gold would play out as quickly as it did. Our tour came to an end in front of the huge chimney of the Beehive Mine. It was one of many that kept the place hopping until 1929. A total of 2,105,000 ounces were extracted from the Tarrangower Goldfields. It would be worth close to 3 billion dollars today. The present population is about 1600, not counting kangaroos and wallabies.

It was a fine trip, even if the kangaroos refused to come out to play. Stay tuned. I haven’t given this old blog up yet. There is more to come.

True film buffs will find it hard to believe that my wife and I were so reluctant to watch a movie that we let it sit around in its paper sleeve for a month while we worked up the nerve to stick it in the DVD player.  I’ll have to confess here that I’m old enough to have actually watched it when it was released, way back in 1959.  Revisiting it was something of a shock because some scenes from the film had stuck with me, haunted me over the years. It is one of those iconic films, like “Citizen Kane.”  Once you watch that, you never look at sleds in quite the same way.

This one is set in Melbourne, of all places.  As far as I know, it is the only big budget, Hollywood film ever made here. Every boomer worth his cinematic salt will have heard of it, of course.  It made headlines when it was released and has not yet been rendered irrelevant.  It is called “On the Beach.”  The premise is simple, and, unfortunately, still scary. It may have even more resonance now than it did then because the planet is imperiled in so many different ways. Global warming seems to have nudged nuclear war out of the headlines.

In the film, most of the planet has been obliterated.  One American submarine has escaped the holocaust and it pops up at the only land mass that has so far been spared– Australia.   Ironically, the submarine is powered by nuclear energy.  A radioactive cloud is making its way south, slowly.  No one knows for sure when it will arrive, but the continent of Australia is doomed.

The film was based on a book by the English/Australian author- Nevil Shute (Norway).  He was an aeronautical engineer and best-selling writer of pot boilers such as “A Town Like Alice.”   He was a lot better at working out the scientific details than coming up with a solid through-line for his characters.  Gregory Peck (the commander of the the sub), is given the curious task of testing a scientific theory about radioactivity in the arctic and investigating a mysterious signal emanating from San Diego.  The rest is soap opera with a very bitter twist.  It is the end of the world, after all.

Anthony Perkins plays Peck’s Australian subordinate.  He provides the American with an introduction to the “locals,” all played by Hollywood actors, of course– Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Donna Anderson.  Astaire is a revelation in this role.  He is a cynical, suicidal scientist who has the unenviable task of explaining to his fellows why defense department “eggheads” accepted ” the idiotic premise that peace could be maintained by organizing to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.”

In typical Hollywood tradition, there is a love story.  The way this was handled by Kramer’s screenwriter apparently incensed Shute.  In the movie, Peck’s wife is dead, of course, and he simply can’t face that fact.  Ava plays a woman who has chosen alcohol over happiness, and she sees in him a last chance at redemption.  The consummation of their affair is only implied in the film, but it was enough to create a serious rift between the director and the writer.  Peck thought it wrong for his character, too, but he was not going to do battle with his producer/director over it.  The actor simply wanted to get the movie’s message across to as many people as possible.

What is absolutely impossible to comprehend now is how Stanley Kramer managed to convince United Artists that they had to make a movie about the end of the world.  Maybe it is all in the book by Philip Davey, a local author who grew up in Melbourne and wrote a book about the production from which I have taken the title of this post.  You can order it directly from him.

The famous quote attributed to Ava Gardner about Melbourne being the “ideal place to make a film about the end of the world” was fabricated out of thin air by a frustrated journalist from Sydney.  Exasperated at being denied an interview with the Hollywood star, Neil Jillet invented the quote as a joke.  Considering the rivalry between the two cities, it was inspired, slighting both Melbourne and the the star’s standing in the City at the same time.

Gardner wasn’t thrilled with filming in Melbourne.  The townsfolk were smitten with the Hollywood celebrities and they made filming difficult.  And then, there were the flies, which threatened to ruin some of the lighter moments.  In Gardner’s words,  “And, naturally, we hit a heat wave when we were there, with temperatures regularly going over one hundred degrees. And I don’t have to be bashful about stating what every Aussie will agree to: that the drinking situation at that time was nearly as bad as it was back home during Prohibition. Joy left town every night at six P.M. sharp, as every pub on the continent closed. At restaurants, any wine you happened to be drinking with your meal was snatched from the table promptly at 9 P.M. and taken down and locked away with the rest of the forbidden fruit.

“As far as studio space went, Stanley also had to improvise. He got the use of the Royal Showgrounds, a massive establishment used most of the year for storing wool, of all things. His production office was in an auto showroom and his wardrobe department in a place that usually housed farm tools. None of the indoor facilities were properly soundproofed, and on days when things like Billy Graham revivals took place nearby, filming became awfully difficult.”

There are some odd anomalies in the movie.  The country is supposedly running out of petrol.  Ava comes to pick up Peck at the train station in a horse and buggy.  The street is crowded with bicycles and people on horseback commuting to work with briefcases.  But no one thinks twice about staging a huge car race, one of the set pieces of the film.  Some of the soap opera elements seem over the top now and “Waltzing Matilda” figures in a bit too insistently, but still….there are moments.

What haunted me from the first time I saw it was the cinematography.  Kramer hired Fellini’s director of photography to do the black and white shoot, and Rotunno certainly knew how to convey bleak.  When you’re feeling entirely too cheerful and need something to bring you down a bit, all right, quite a bit, put in your order on Quickflix or Netflix.  There’s one thing I can practically guarantee.  You won’t wait long.  It is far too frightening for the horror film fans.

Check it out.

On the Beach

The architecture of Melbourne is to be found in buildings which are, quite literally, all over the map.  I have mentioned before that this city is spread out, but it only sinks in when you see the suburbs light up one by one on an illuminated map which reveals them according to the dates each was founded.  The map is to be found at the ultra modern Melbourne Museum, right next door to one of the city’s architectural showpieces, the Royal Exhibition Building, 1879-1880.

Melbourne was founded in 1835 without the approval of the British administration of London or Sydney.  Free settlers from Tasmania stumbled upon the grazing lands along the Yarra River and set up a small, pastoral settlement producing wool.  The settlement grew slowly for the first sixteen years.  In 1837, the government in Sydney accepted the inevitable and sent surveyors over to establish a grid of streets.  The town was named after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne.

Brick and wood were the most common building materials, followed by the basalt that had been squeezed up to the surface by volcanic action in the area– bluestone.   In 1851, Melbourne became the capital of the new colony of Victoria.  Gold was discovered the very same month and more than half a million gold seekers poured into the city over the next ten years.  Melbourne was suddenly transformed into the biggest city in Australia.

The city’s open sewers were covered over and grand Victorian buildings were erected to line the new streets, boulevards and gardens.  The boom generated a staggering number of Victorian buildings, banks, museums, hotels, churches, theatres and mansions.  They were ornate, demonstrating ingenious use of the new products of the industrial revolution, cast iron, pressed tin, sheet glass and cheap labour.  The neo classical style was adopted for public buildings, gothic for churches.

The building boom continued until the bank crash of the 1890’s, which was followed by an economic depression. After the 1890’s there was a new enthusiasm for the picturesque.  This was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau.

Basalt (bluestone) was extracted from a quarry in Clifton Hill and used extensively in the 19th century. Because the material was difficult to carve, it was used for warehouses and the foundations of public buildings. Significant bluestone buildings include the Melbourne Gaol, Pentridge Prison, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne Grammar School, Victoria College for the Deaf, and the Goldsborough Mort warehouses.

It was also used extensively for cobblestone roads, curbs, gutters, retaining walls and bridges. It is ubiquitous throughout the city, anchoring the city to the earth with its appearance of permanence. Bluestone is not, in fact, as immortal as it appears.  It weathers, and some of it is riddled with holes made by escaping gasses  It does not posses diamond-like qualities, but to the builders of Melbourne, it was the next best thing.  It made the city what it is today.

This city is going through an existential crisis at the moment, but my last post was so heavy with angst I don’t feel like taking it on. The gist of it is, like all attractive, thriving destinations, Melbourne is being loved to death. It is growing at a rate of 1200 new people a week. It now has a population of 3.5 million. By 2030, it will approach 6 million, probably surpassing Sydney.

And this is a very, very, very spread out city, with a population density of just 1500 people per square km., compared to Paris at 3400 or London at 5100. It is rapidly eating up the surrounding countryside, generating new suburbs without the transportation infrastructure to support them. The Economist just named it as the 2nd most livable city in the world (right behind Vancouver), but it carbon footprint is that of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The expansion on the outer edges is turning the metropolis into a bifurcated city of haves in the inner city (with access to the transport that is already in place), and have nots in the outer suburbs, reliant on increasingly expensive petrol to get to work. And so on.

But I was not going to write about that. I was going to write about Australians you have heard of, but probably don’t know are Australian. Errol Flynn, for example, born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1909. His early career as a gold prospector, plantation owner, slave recruiter and womanizer was nothing to brag about, but probably enhanced his stature when he hit Hollywood.

A photograph in a newspaper caught the eye of an Australian movie maker, who cast Flynn as Fletcher Christian in the 1933 epic, “In the Wake of the Bounty.” The success of that role led the Tasmanian to London and a role as Captain Blood, then his triumph, “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

He had the looks, the cocky attitude and a stunt man’s fearlessness to make his mark as a matinée idol. Onscreen, it was period pictures and a pairing with the lovely Olivia de Havilland. Offscreen, it was Don Juan in the flesh. Parties, orgies, drugs and alcohol. He set the lowest possible standard for all young hunks in Hollywood to follow. “In like Flynn” was coined to describe his innumerable erotic conquests.

His last great role was no stretch for him as an actor– he portrayed an alcoholic in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty.

Counterpoint– another very physical matinée idol, Jackie Chan. I’ll bet you thought he was from Hong Kong. He is, actually, but the Australians don’t mind claiming him as a native son. He was born in 1954 in Hong Kong, where his father worked as a chef at the French embassy. In 1962, both parents were offered employment at the American Embassy in Canberra.

The son remained behind for a few years, studying martial arts at the Peking Opera School. In the mid 70’s he came to Australia to live with his parents. He attended school, then worked on building sites, where he picked up the nickname that stuck with him for life, Jackie.

He had already caught the eye of film makers back in Hong Kong, however, He returned to the colony and made his breakout film, “Drunken Master.” In 1994, he made “Rumble in the Bronx,” and the rest is kung fu cinematic history.

Jackie made two films in Australia in the late nineties, “First Strike” and “Mr. Nice Guy,” and has often used post production facilities here to finish pictures. His mother died recently, but his father remains a resident.

Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, Toni Collette, Nick Cave, Bryce Courtenay, Peter Finch, Colin Friels, Rachel Giffiiths, George Miller, Morris West, Naomi Watts, Dame Joan Sutherland, Percy Grainger, Dame Melba, Helmut Newton, Guy Pearce, Havelock Ellis.

Just a sampling of Australians who found their way into the global awareness, at least in the West.  More power to them. It is time for bone dry antipodes to bloom.

Flickr Photos


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