Marvellous MONA

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have been back from our Australia trip for about two weeks.  Those weeks have been spent quietly slotting back into a daily routine.  I have been getting a fork into the vegetable patch, strolling around the neighbourhood to spot the small changes that took place while we were away, catching up on a couple of Forest Green Rovers FC games, and recovering from the jet lag.  Once again I feel so relieved that, having retired, I can do all this without the worry of having to catch up at work while negotiating jet lag muzziness.

Though these two weeks, the memories of Australia have lived on pretty vividly.  They are reinforced by each retelling of our exploits down under to friends and relatives.  We’ve had some very good holidays in recent years but our Australia trip was one of the best.

One of the most exhilarating days that we had in Australia was that we spent in Hobart visiting the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).  This was set up by and is run and financed by David Walsh, a millionaire Tasmanian who made his fortune through gambling.  He is passionate about art and giving something back to Tasmania.  Visiting the gallery is free for Tasmanians and it has become a huge tourist attraction.

MONA

Museum Of Old And New Art (MONA)

The visit started on a purpose-built jetty from which Youngest Son (YS) (who paid for the excursion), Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), and I boarded a strangely shaped and coloured ferry.  As we boarded we were invited to load up a MONA app on our phones and, as we started to look through the web site pages, we could see we would be in for a fun time.  This feeling was underlined by the presence of a full size cow sculpture on the boat and seats that looked like sheep.

The journey itself, up the Derwent River, gave us a new, interesting view of Hobart’s industry and huge river side mansions.  Then, as we approached MONA on its own island in the middle of the river, we could make out a series of balconies, walkways and low-slung, rather strange looking buildings.  As we left the ferry and entered one of these I was reminded of Thunderbirds and Tracy Island; it all felt slightly off kilter and unreal.

Inside it quickly became apparent that the bulk of the cavernous space for the art, the bars and the selection of restaurants is carved deep into the sandstone rock of the island.  There are spiral staircases, long corridors, small and huge rooms and, everywhere, fascinating sights.  I loved, for example, the slot machine beer dispenser which took one’s money and took its time to decide whether to dispense a lovely, expensive craft beer or a can of bog-standard Fosters lager.  I didn’t try it but was entertained by the relief or the frustration of others who did.

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Lucky Dip Beer Dispensary

As we moved around, so all the art was labelled, described and explained by the location sensitive app on our phones.  This provided various levels of detail – as much or as little as you wanted – on whatever was nearby.  I experienced something similar at the Opera exhibition at the Victoria and Albert just over a year ago but nothing as slick, comprehensive or amusing as this.

Screenshots From The MONA App

And so onto the art!  Incredible!

The first exhibit, Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris, required application for entry on the MONA app.  When my turn came I was let into a dark room, alone, and made my way around a platform with black water on either side.  In the middle of the room was, on one side of the platform, an Egyptian mummy in its shroud.  On the other side was a CAT scan of the same mummy that presented layers of the mummy progressively so that the mummified flesh was peeled back gradually to reveal organs then bones.  Some of these were damaged and indicated the cause of death and that, plus the irregular drips of water in the silent, dark room, made this lone experience really eerie and memorable.

Perhaps the best exhibit was Artifact by Gregory Barsamian.  I think it was YS’s favourite too.  It was a large bronze head on its side with several portals so you could see inside.  From each portal one got a different view of what resembled a rotating machine with birds, balls, hands, heads and wheels all moving around in sync in a quiet whirlwind of stroboscopic light.  It was riveting but I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing then and can’t hope to describe it adequately now.  It was astonishing and brilliant.

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian (But I Just Couldn’t Capture Any Of The Movement or Impact Of It Here)

That was unsettling but even more so was the tattooed man, Tim.  The gallery has bought the tattoos on the back of this man and he is paid to sit all day, silently and still, to exhibit it.  It raised some deep ambiguity about ownership, slavery and art.

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye Overlooking One Of The Restaurants Cut Deep Into The Sandstone

Other exhibits were also designed to keep one off balance.  Near Artifact was a bowl of water on a chair with a large sharp knife and two red and orange goldfish in it.  It was a simple piece (by Jannis Kounellis) but unnervingly reminiscent of blood in water.

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Another exhibit (Kryptos by Brigita Ozolins) was a room set up as a small black maze with niches holding ancient vases.  When one got to the middle of the maze there was something unconscious that prompted one to look up.  Above was a mirror reflecting my upturned face; it scared the living daylights out of me.

I could go on.  There was the room half full of dense, black oil by Richard Wilson.  There was a grave stone at which we could throw glass bottles.  There was a huge room of tables with moving pellets, stroboscopic lighting, vast noise and hundreds of digital displays filled with alphanumeric characters (Supersymmetry by Ryoji Ikeda).  There lovely set of pieces by an Australian artist called Patrick Hall with opening drawers with recorded sounds, words and inscriptions.  There was a room with smelly hanging bowls linked by tubes and being fed food so that they reproduced the workings of the human digestive tract from start to finish (Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye).  There were skeletons making love, corridors with ever changing wall colours, a fat red car and hundreds of other works of art that surprised, enthralled and unsettled.

Fat Car By Erwin Wurm and Cloaca Professional In Action

It was simply the most engaging and enjoyable art exhibition I have ever seen.  It was huge but my attention didn’t drop once over about 4 hours. I’d love to go back and I recommend it to all.

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

Views Around MONA

 

Perth’s Diverse Hinterland

Our last week in Australia was spent exploring the south western corner of Western Australia.  What struck me as we travelled north, south, and east form Perth was that, even though the scale of the landscape is huge, there is considerable diversity in flora and landscape.

To the north are sparse coastlines backed by gigantic dunes.  The eucalyptus gives way to other tree species and then to heath-like scrub.  The towns on the coast such as Lancelin and Cervantes are quietly dedicated to small-scale tourism and crayfishing.

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

The famous Pinnacles Desert is inland from these fishing towns and was our main target.  This desert in the Nambung National Park is a marvel of calcified tree trunk stumps.  These were once in a forest that was submerged by dunes and now stand in their thousands across a baking desert.  It is possible to walk among them but fortunately, given the heat, there is also a rough car track through the park and we used that.  Once again we admired the way the Australians know how to present their prized landscape wonders.

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

We spent four days touring the region south of Perth.  We started with a 4 hour drive to Pemberton, broken by a pleasant stop at Bunbury.  As we drove south, the countryside was initially desiccated and there was a good deal of stressed-looking forest.  Later, as we approached Bunbury, the grassland and forest became lusher.  Where there were vast plantations of conifers, we were reminded of our drives around Vancouver a few years back – but now with the temperature gauge turned up!

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Bunbury itself had some on-trend cafes (e.g. The Townhouse) that echoed Perth’s modern restaurant scene and a lovely rocky coastline was nearby.  There, I was so busy taking a photo of the waves on the basalt pillars that I was too late getting out of the way of an abnormally large wave and got a thorough soaking.  Good job the temperature was in the mid-thirties and I dried out quickly; lesson learnt though.

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Maidens Reserve, Bunbury. A Few Seconds Later, I Was Very Wet!

Pemberton is an unremarkable town surrounded by vast tracts of remarkable Karri eucalyptus forest.  I wanted to visit to recapture the magical feel we got from similar forest we saw 18 months ago west of Melbourne. We weren’t disappointed.

We walked through the forests both in the evening when we arrived and then the next morning and, both times, the slanting light through the trees was gorgeous and the sheer size of the trees was impressive.  My only regret was that I failed to pluck up the courage to climb one of the look-out trees that the fire marshals use to spot fires.  Had the enthusiasm of Youngest Son still been with us, I’m sure we would have all gone up for the tree-top view.

It was during our morning walk through gigantic eucalyptus groves of Beedelup Falls forest that we saw a snake.  Unlike when we were on the Great Ocean Road in 2017, this time, it was Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) who had the closest encounter and was within a couple of yards of its basking spot before it moved.  I think it was a moderately venomous short-tailed snake but it slid away quickly before we got an even closer look (which I really didn’t want!).

Beedelup National Park

Beedelup National Park

From Pemberton we went west and south to Margaret River and Augusta.  Here we chilled out among the wineries and breweries (Xanadu, Watershed and, the best of those we visited, Eagle Bay) and took in views of the surf and dolphins along the dramatic and largely empty coast.  Sugarloaf Rock, Prevelly Bay and Hamelin Bay provided particularly sweeping vistas and the latter had the added attraction of a large number of incredible metre wide sting rays patrolling the shallows.

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay (Actually, It Makes It Look Smaller Than Reality…)

We also visited one of the large caves just inland.  Fortunately, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) overcame her fear of enclosed, dark spaces to see all of Lake Cave. This was smaller than the Cango Caves we had seen last year in South Africa, but almost as impressive.

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Lake Cave

As we travelled around so we passed through little settlements each showing off their specialisms with great pride – Donnybrook is famous for its fruit and had streets lines with lamp posts shaped as apples, Cowaranup has life size models of cows everywhere and another town had a squad of scarecrows on show.  Each community took great pride in their identity.

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup :)

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup 🙂

Further north we visited another of LSW’s old friends – a school friend this time – in Dawesville.  The stories she told of her life since migrating to an Australian farm in the 1970’s were fascinating.  Her very Australian husband was an impressively practical antithesis of my own ability with machines who also had some amazing tales of the sharp end of life and travelling in Australia.

We rounded off that stop over with a wander around Mandurah where a ‘Crabfest’ overlooking a bay bigger than Sydney Harbour, attracted more people than we had seen together in one place throughout our entire trip.  We also diverted to take a walk along Clifton Lake through Tuart eucalyptus woods.  This was interesting for the rare, calcified structures an ancient species of bacteria (thrombolites) produces on the lake floor and also for the chainsaw-like noise the clouds of (non-biting) midges made as we walked through them.  We’d seen a variety of marsupials, birds, reptiles, dolphins and other wildlife on our trip but I didn’t expect to be impressed by midges!

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Thrombolite Structures At Clifton Lake

Our final, and probably hottest day, was spent east of Perth.  Here, the trees species were different again.  A whole chook (chicken) lunch at The Feral Brewing Company was followed by a brief, hot trip to the massive and historic Mandaring Weir.  Then there was a final round of drinks at the historically interesting and now rather trendy Guildford Hotel in Guildford.

Mandaring Weir

From there we departed for the airport and left Australia having loved pretty much every minute of our stay there.  We’ll be back one day.

Bright, Shiny Perth (And Freemantle)

The third city in Australia that we visited, after Sydney and Hobart, was Perth plus its twin, Freemantle, way out on the west coast.  During our five hour flight over the south coast of Australia we got a sense of Australia’s huge scale.  We had previously admired the 9 mile beaches in Tasmania but now we could see we were flying over beaches on the south coast more than 100 miles long.

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) had booked us into the Alex Hotel in Perth as the base for our stay in Western Australia.  It was excellent – probably the best value hotel I can remember staying in.  It was central, modern, cool, informal and very comfortable.  The friendly and helpful staff, the buffet breakfast and the honour bar systems in the lounge and roof top seating area were very trusting and relaxing.

Sunset Over The Alex's Roof Top Bar

Sunset Over The Alex’s Roof Top Bar

We were initially disappointed that breakfast was included in the room rate since we had been looking forward to finding the best breakfasts Perth could offer.  However, the breakfast was so good – the fig bread was especially tasty and the coffee was predictably excellent – that we indulged every morning.  These substantial breakfasts plus, I think, the 30 degrees of heat outside, meant that we rarely felt like more than light meals for lunch or dinner.  Not that stopped us sampling the excellent food that seems the norm in Australia (for example at NoMafia, Shadow Bar and Gordon Street Garage).

On our first morning LSW and I walked to Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre site overlooking the Swan estuary and the central business district that contains the botanical gardens and a large tract of native bushland.  It was a good introduction to the plants and, especially, the trees of Western Australia and the views were great across brilliantly sunny, clear air. We flagged after a few hours in the heat.  Fortunately, the Swan Brewery, with its view across the shining Perth Water, is adjacent to the park so planning for refreshments was relatively easy!

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

We strolled around the waterfront which is undergoing a huge transformation.  Everywhere we looked the city seemed bright, shiny and vibrant.

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

The following day we took a ferry to Freemantle, the port out on the coast at the end of the Swan River.  Again, the city was clean, tidy and looked great in the brilliant sun.  The historical buildings were rather more grouped together than we had seen in Perth’s centre and the strips of late 19th century and early 20th century colonial buildings were busy with independent businesses but well preserved.

On The Way To Freemantle

On The Way To Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

We visited two historical prisons and the Freemantle Shipwrecks Museum and each held our interest for an hour or so.  The Roundhouse opened in January 1831 to hold those convicted of a crime in the settlement and was used until 1886.  We were fortunate enough to be visiting just as a demonstration was taking place of the Freemantle Time Ball and Cannon.  This was used daily until 1937 to indicate the precise time to sailors off the coast so they could navigate successfully through the islands and reefs.  The cannon was a good deal noisier than either LSW or I expected!

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Freemantle Convict Prison was built in the 1850s by convicts shipped from England and was then used to house them as they continued to be sent to Australia until 1868.  The building was impressive and LSW was rather taken by the standard prison uniform which was rather like some of her own best outfits.  Over 10,000 convicts passed through the prison and helped build the settlement’s infrastructure.  Some convicts served their sentence and went on through various levels of freedom to be successful outside the prison.  Of course, many did not and the exhibition showed how tough conditions were for the convicts, especially those undertaking hard labour in welded-on manacles in over 30 degrees of heat.

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

'The Slops': Convict Uniform

‘The Slops’: Convict Uniform

The Shipwreck Museum was stuffed full of information and exhibits and, frankly, we were ready for another nice lunch (which followed very pleasantly at Hush).  I focused on learning about James Stirling who explored the Swan River in 1827 and made the case to the British government for establishment of the Freemantle settlement.  He is an ancestor of LSW’s brother in law so there was an extra twist of interest in the material relating to him in the museum.

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

Back in Perth, we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which, apart from a nice looking café and an interesting exhibition by Cassils (a Canadian performance artist), was rather empty.  I also went to the Art Gallery of Western Australia which was more conventionally full of Australian, Aboriginal and European art.  A collection of European sculptures by Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Lynn Chadwick and Antony Gormley) was impressive.

Our last full day in Perth ended at one of Australia’s iconic beaches: Cottesloe Beach.  Here was more sculpture; this time, a temporary exhibition of international, modern sculpture in a collection called ‘Sculpture By The Sea’.

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

This exhibition, and Perth’s love of the beach, attracted big crowds.  Navigating these was a novelty given that everywhere else we had been on this trip had been very sparsely populated or entirely empty.  We simply retreated to a bar and watched the lovely sunset.  It was a beautiful way to round off our time in bright, lively and seemingly confident Perth.

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

We used Perth as a base for travel south, north and east in the south-west corner of Western Australia.  I’ll cover my thoughts on some of those journeys in the next post.

Scratching The Surface of Tasmania

Tasmania is more than half the size of England so it is no wonder that, in the five days Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have been here, we have only seen a fraction of the island. However, having met up with Youngest Son (YS) here, we have seen a good deal of the south-east of the island and of Hobart, the capital. Once again, Australia has been spectacular.

Panorama Of Hobart From Mount Wellington (Originally Called Kunanyi)

It was great to see our exuberant and bouncy YS again. Having now parted once more, as we head to Perth and he heads back to Brisbane, it is nice to know we will see him back in the UK in May as his three-year sojourn in Australia comes to an end.

LSW certainly welcomed YS’s love of driving; he drove us proficiently and everywhere. We started in Hobart but soon hit the road east through wide valleys of brown grass and rolling hillsides covered with dense eucalyptus and pine, to the little town of Swansea. Here we did a couple of coastal walks and then drove on to the dramatic Freycinet Peninsula.

Lichen Coloured Rocks At Loontitetmaorrelehoiner Track, Swansea

Here, YS got us up very early to walk up to the lookout across Wineglass Bay to see the sunrise. The climb started in the dark silence with a terrific view of the stars and Milky Way above. It finished with the sort of sunrise view over pink granite cliffs and a remote circular bay that one sees in picture books. We were alone as the sun came up, gradually lit up the rocks and triggered the dawn chorus of birds. It was spellbinding.

Wineglass Bay and Mount Mayson from Wineglass Bay Lookout At Sunrise

There were two more highlights nearby. The first was a walk to Cape Tourville Lighthouse as a brief, violent storm hit the coast. We could see the rain coming in sudden, vicious gusts of wind. We rushed some photographs and ran back to our car. We reached it as the hail hit. It was all very invigorating.

Storm Approaching Cape Tourville

Then, as the rain cleared and newly cleared air settled again, we visited Sleepy Bay. This was lovely and, as usual, almost empty of fellow walkers. We pottered around for a calming hour or so amongst the brightly coloured boulders and gritty sand filled with shells. We visited other bays but this was my favourite.

Sleepy Bay

From the accurately named 9 Mile Beach at Swansea and the Freycinet Peninsula, we travelled on to the larger Tasman Peninsula. Here we focused on the famous coastal features near Eaglehawk Neck and Port Arthur namely: Tasman Arch, Devils Kitchen, Blowhole and Remarkable Cave.

Remarkable Cave, Tasman Arch And Blowhole

All are similar geomorphic features showing the sandstone and volcanic dolerite coast at various stages of erosion. Each was great in its way and all were wonderfully accessible and at their best in the welcome sun.

View From Devils Kitchen, Tasman Peninsula

We returned to Hobart having failed to visit the world heritage site at Port Arthur that showcases early immigrant convict treatment and not having undertaken a really big hike. There just hadn’t been time.

Nor was there time to do all the trips out to National Parks around Hobart. But our days were, nonetheless, full (and not just with eating and drinking in fun bars and restaurants such as Hobart Brewery and Aloft on the vibrant waterfront, and Kalbi in grittier North Hobart).

Preachers Bar In Salamanca Square – With Coach Seating In The Beer Garden!

We reached the peak of monumental Mount Wellington which towers over Hobart. It is covered by huge eucalyptus trees at its base, shorter eucalyptus further up and boulder hugging shrubs and lichens at the top. It’s rocky sides are sheer with spectacular pinnacles of rock (known as the ‘Organ Pipes’). It’s an impressive and very accessible mountain. The views from it rival those we saw last year from Cape Town‘s Table Mountain.

Windy And Stupendous Views On The Top Of Mount Wellington

We travelled north up the Derwent Valley for a rather fine lunch in a converted convict hospital and mental institution (Agrarian Kitchen in New Norfolk). We got away and travelled south to visit some of LSW’s old college friends who migrated here 30 years ago. Their hospitality was very generous and it was fascinating to hear of their lives in Tasmania including their gardening challenges with the local wildlife.

Derwent Valley Cliffs At New Norfolk

On the way with these friends to the local, authentically rustic pub, and then on the way back to Hobart, we saw a lot of marsupial wildlife (wallabies, pademelon and something smaller) for the first time. I saw the full range of stuffed versions at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. This also had an excellent exhibition on Antarctica, the remote islands between Antarctica and Australia and, of course, the impact of climate change.

A Couple Of Our Friends’ Domesticated Animals: Selby and Thomas

Our final full day in Hobart started with a wander around the large and colourful market in Salamanca.

Colour And Goodness At Salamanca Market

However, the day was dominated by a trip to The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). This was fabulous and I will leave it at that here and cover it in a separate blog post when I get home. At the point of writing this in Hobart airport, I think it is simply the most entertaining art gallery I have ever visited.

I visited Battery Point, an upscale residential area overlooking the bay in the early morning sun after breakfast on our last day.

Typical Battery Point Houses And The Castray Esplanade/Yacht Race Judges Hut

Now we are on our last leg of our Australian adventure. Perth promises to be every bit as interesting as Sydney and Tasmania. Once again though, all we can hope for is a taste of it.

Early Morning – Last Day In Hobart

Spectacular Sydney

I’ve seen a lot of Facebook and Instagram pictures of Sydney Harbour but nothing really prepares you for its scale and beauty until you are on a ferry crossing it. Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have again been fortunate with the weather here but I imagine that Sydney Harbour is spectacular in almost any weather.

Looking Back At Sydney From The Manly Ferry

From the ferry one gets different perspectives of the iconic Sydney Bridge and Opera House. But once in open water the most impressive things are the sheer scale of the outer harbour, the multitude of interesting inlets and bays that line it, and the vast number of people on the water in something or other. I also liked the dramatic cliffs that stand on either side of the opening onto the Pacific.

Sydney Opera House (Of Course!)

We cleared some of the fuzz of not having slept for about 36 hours in transit from Doha, by wandering through the city, the Botanic Garden and the Opera House, and then boarding a ferry to Manly. The ocean breeze was as refreshing as the first cup of Australian coffee we had in a typically hip coffee bar in a Manly backstreet.

Manly Beach

Later in our stay in Sydney, LSW and I met up with an old friend who moved here a couple of years ago from our home town in Gloucestershire. She suggested another ferry trip and then a walk along the eastern promontory that protects the harbour. The views from Rose Bay to Watson Bay were again spectacular – this time, not only of the harbour coastline, but also of the grand glass and swimming pool-fronted houses that overlook this.

View of Sydney From Near Rose Bay

The Bondi Beach to Coogee walk we did on our last full day was also wonderful. This time we could see the full force of the Pacific Ocean. Again, the walkways and availability of quality drinks, eateries and other conveniences was excellent. As we noticed when we drove along the Great Ocean Road From Melbourne 18 months ago, Australians are (rightly) proud of their natural environment and want to make it accessible so it can be appreciated.

Bondi Swimming Pool, Bondi Beach And Coogee From Marks Park

Rock Formations Near Bondi Beach

Our other excursion out of Sydney centre was to the Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens and Crematorium. This was definitely off the normal tourist routes! The reason for the visit was to find LSW’s grandfather’s crematorium plaque. It took LSW a while to relate her old map to the current, extended crematorium layout but she found it and so a big emotional to-do was ticked off.

LSW’s Grandfather’s Plaque (Died In Sydney 1953)

Of course, we also spent a lot of time walking around, drinking in and eating in Sydney centre. The streets and shops we saw were perhaps less interesting than those we recall from Melbourne but we loved the cafes and restaurants (especially Chin Chin, Paramount Coffee Project, Social Brew Cafe and the Quarrymans Hotel rooftop bar). We stayed near Darling Harbour which was lively and close to the rather sweet and calming Chinese Friendship Garden.

Darling Harbour

Panoramic View Of Chinese Garden Of Friendship

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (NSW) was even more impressive than expected. There was some great Aboriginal art and a wide selection of work by Australian and international artists (Brett Whiteley, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, etc.). But what made our visit exceptional was a special exhibition there of ‘Masters of Modern Art From The Hermitage’. This told of the history of this amazing Russian collection and included great examples by Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso, Delaunay and many others. It was a very high quality show.

Examples Of Aboriginal Art At The Art Gallery of NSW

The Aboriginal art tended to support my theory (in my last blog post from Qatar) that desert artists tend to go for bright colours. However the Matisse, Delaunay and Kandinsky paintings on show underlined the mastery of colour by many European artists.

Examples of Delaunay and Kandinsky From The Masters of Modern Art From The Hermitage

After all that, the Museum of Contemporary Art felt tame. We didn’t stay long and soon retreated to a roof top bar.

Snapshots of Sydney (Bridge, Opera House, Queen Victoria’s Building, Botanic Gardens, Hospital)

We loved Sydney. it was especially lively due our visit coinciding with Mardi Gras celebrations and the weather was lovely. The food and drink was every bit as good as we had hoped/expected. The people were friendly and the service in pubs, restaurants and cafes was excellent. There is, as anticipated, plenty to see in the City beyond the obviously iconic. And the harbour is truly magnificent!

Random Bits Of Wildlife We Saw (Fairy-wren, Rainbow Lorikeet, Some Sort Of Iguana, Kookaburra)

On now to Hobart in Tasmania. The highlight there will be meeting up with Youngest Son (YS) who has travelled down from Brisbane for a few days. There will be other treats too I think….

Qatar: Architects’ Playground

On our way to Australia, we stopped over for a couple of days with Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) brother in Doha, Qatar. He has been in the Middle East for many years. Currently, he is working on the design and build of one of the new stadia for the 2022 Football World Cup.

Doha’s Museum Of Islamic Art

It was great to see him in what has become his new natural habitat. Despite his work pressures, he kindly accommodated us and introduced us to some of the night life. This included the lively and labyrinthine Souk Waqif and some of the numerous hotels that cater for business expense accounts, ex-pats and the indigenous rich. LSW loved the valet parking but the highlight for us both was dinner at an Iranian restaurant called Parisa in Souk Waqif. The food was substantial and flavoursome and the decor was simply astonishing.

Parisa Entrance And Main Interior

Qatar is, in most ways, a very young country. For centuries it relied on fishing and pearl diving. It’s incredibly rapid growth has just been since the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century. Now it is vastly wealthy with investments all over the world and massive infrastructure development at home.

Construction seemed to be everywhere although there was a feeling that some had slowed recently due to political conflicts between Qatar and some of its neighbours.

Along the thoroughfares, new landscaping (with expensive-looking paving, date palms, colourful petunias and leaky pipe watering systems) is joining up buildings that are springing up from bare desert. Clearly there has been a massive amount of money and architectural imagination at play. The architects have had a huge amount of fun with everything from the buildings to the lamp-posts.

Part Of The Central Business District (CBD) (Including The ‘Condom Tower’)

The most impressive buildings I saw were the Museum of Islamic Art and the Jean Nouvel Museum. The latter is not yet complete, and was hard to get close, but it looks wonderful already.

Jean Nouvel Museum From The Corniche

Also, we were impressed by the Msheireb Downtown Area. This is a swathe of Doha that was part of the mid-20th century expansion, that then fell into disrepair and which has recently been cleared. It is being replaced by an innovative, relatively low rise, sustainable development. This uses shade and the wind for cooling and removes cars to underground passages. The area re-built so far feels accessible, fresh and calming.

Views Of Msheireb Downtown Area

Not all the new architecture works for me. Some of the buildings are bizarre or just ugly to my eyes. The blingy palaces and residential blocks on the artificial islands called The Pearl were particularly soulless and disappointing (although the gin palaces in the nearby marinas were as impressive as expected).

My impressions here were not helped by the piped muzak – truly ghastly – or that I temporarily thought I had lost my wallet. Fortunately I had simply left it at LSW’s brother’s house so my doom and gloom contingency planning was quickly made redundant.

The Pearl Tower Blocks And Marina

Qatar is fiercely proud of its heritage and culture. There are a number of cultural centres. One we visited was the Msheireb Enrichment Centre, on a huge barge, which provided some well presented, fascinating insights. The exhibits posed provocative questions about the role of social media and women, and about sustainability and climate change (surprising given the country’s dependence on oil/gas revenue and the car). It also explained the objectives of the Msheireb Downtown Project.

As part of that project, four historic buildings have been restored/re-built and now house interesting exhibitions on life in pre-modern Qatar, on the role of oil in the country’s development, and on slavery. The buildings were peaceful and cool in every sense.

Inside Bin Jelmood House, Msheireb Downtown

LSW and I visited the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art several miles to the west of Doha centre. The trip was worthwhile despite none of the artists being known to us. The overall impression I got was that the desert light prompts artists to use a more colourful palette than we often see in the West.

One Of The Rooms At Mathaf Arab Museum Of Modern Art

However, the centrepiece of the Qatari focus on culture is the Museum of Islamic Art. We visited twice (all the museums are free), the second time to focus on the threat to Syrian monuments and cultural artefacts posed by the war there.

Various Items (Invariably Much Older Than Expected) At The Museum Of Islamic Art

A little like the Kolumba Museum in Cologne that we visited late last year, the emphasis is on quality not quantity. The pieces on show are terrific, the lighting is atmospheric and the interior architecture is inspiring. We loved it.

Inside One Of The Museum of Islamic Art Exhibition Rooms

The Cafe In The Museum Of Islamic Art Overlooking The Sea And The CBD

Our stopover in Doha was a huge success. It was made special by being able to meet up with LSW’s brother but we may well visit again on our way east in the future even if, by then, his work in Qatar is done.

Now on to Sydney.

Secret Santa Scores A Hit

Last Christmas, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), our three sons and I, decided to replace the tradition of us each giving everyone else a present, with a Secret Santa arrangement.  In this, each person draws a lot to determine which single person they should buy a Secret Santa present for up to a (relatively small) price limit.  This allows more focus and so reduces considerably the stress of (useful) present buying and the chance of getting something unwanted.

The reason I recall this now is that last week I was able to act upon my Secret Santa present: a ticket to a gig by Yo La Tengo at Hackney Arts Centre.  Actually, the giver, Eldest Son (ES), was no secret and, indeed, I went with him.  But Secret Santa was, for me as a receiver, a great hit.

Yo La Tengo is a band I have loved since I started buying albums by them in 2000.  In fact, they have been together as a three piece since the mid 1980’s and, as ES said after the gig, they have become very proficient at what they do.  Their music varies from gentle muses to Velvet Underground-like wig outs.  Unfortunately they didn’t rock ES’s boat but I loved almost all of the two-and-a-half hour performance.  I’m still humming their tunes to myself every day.

The venue is a gutted old cinema with bare walls and the seats taken out (contrary to the picture of comfortable seating on their website!).  We had to sit on nicely preserved, but very hard, wooden steps.  My back and bum could only take hour of that but then I was able to stand at the front and the two halves of the gig from the two vantage points was nice variety.

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo At Hackney Arts Centre

I made two separate trips to London last week.  During these I met with a fellow retiree ex-work colleague for lunch, caught up with Middle Son (MS) for breakfast and met up with ES and his girlfriend.  I also went once again to my favourite folk club – The Lantern Society – which was once again consistently good across 10 brief but high quality and varied acts.

Live At The Lantern Society

Live At The Lantern Society

I then travelled up to my parents in Nottingham and jumped on from there to Mansfield to see my football team (lose entertainingly again).

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town (With 170 Fellow Travelling Supporters)

The most surprising element amid all this was a visit I made to the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although it is only a 10 minute walk from where I lived for 20 years, I had never been before.  I went to see an exhibition of Victorian art portraying lives and perceptions of children.  However, I also walked around the rest of an impressive gallery and the very well exhibited remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the bowels of the building. London never ceases to surprise.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery (Pre-Raphaelite Section)

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

The main exhibition at the gallery, called Seen and Heard was interesting, informative and well presented.  It resonated well with a book I’m just finishing called A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively.  As it happens this was another Christmas present, this time from LSW’s Aunt. Lively uses her memory of artefacts and aspects of a rather grand childhood home in west Somerset to launch narratives on how various elements of social life have changed in the last 150 years or so.

The First Sermon and The Second Sermon By Millais

The First Sermon (Girl Sleeping) and The Second Sermon (Girl Not Sleeping) By Millais At The ‘Seen And Heard’ Exhibition

Lively covers childhood, gardening, hunting, immigration and marriage and much more.  The chapters covering childhood and parenting interlocked with some of what I saw at the Guildhall and it all rang true.  In particular, the section on her marriage got me nodding my head in agreement.  Here is an extract of one paragraph:

“Every marriage is a journey, a negotiation, an accommodation.  In a long marriage, both partners will mutate; the people who set out together are not the same two people after ten years, let alone thirty or more…… Our marriage was like most; it had its calm reaches, its sudden treacherous bends, its episodes of white water to be navigated with caution and a steady nerve…… We meshed entirely in tastes and inclinations, could always fire one another with new interest, and laid down over the years that rich sediment of shared references and mutual recognition familiar to all who have known long companionship. You are separate people, but there is a shadowy presence which is an entity, the fusion of you both.”

I’m expecting LSW and I to build another layer of sediment of shared memory over the next few weeks as we travel to Qatar and then tour Sydney, Tasmania and Perth in Australia.  Watch this space.

Sunshine in Suffolk

Framlingham College From Below The Castle

Framlingham College From Below The Castle

The highlight of the last couple of weeks has been a trip to some old friends in Suffolk.  We last visited them shortly after I retired in mid-2017 and then attempted to make a further visit in Autumn last year.  Readers of this blog might recall that became what I called at the time: my first wasted day of my retirement.  That was because we had to abort the visit half way to Suffolk because Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) previously trusty car stopped working in the outside lane of a dual carriageway just outside Bedford.  We spent the rest of a very frustrating day standing in a layby and then a tiny roadside shop and, finally, in the recovery truck on the way back home.

The garage has, since then, replaced the car engine (gratifyingly, at their expense since the cause of the problem was some work that they had done on the car).  This time the car was faultless on our way across country to Eye in Suffolk and our time with our friends was, perhaps, all the better for the delayed gratification.

Our friends have been upgrading their house, which was once a rectory, for several years.  The delay to our visit meant that there was even more work on their house to admire.  A key feature is the garden and, especially, the adjoining allotments.  Their scale, the fact they are well tended and the presence of some lovely surrounding walls reminds me of the allotments in the village near to our house where I intermittently tend a small patch of ground.  Beyond this, though, the comparison falters.  The allotments adjacent to our friends are private, not public, and are more like a small holding with just a few plot holders, old workshops and animals.

Our friends are in the process of acquiring the allotments.  In her retirement, the wife in the couple is taking on the management of the tenants and is already a tour de force in ensuring the allotments are well organised, productive and look splendid.  She loves the process and the results of her efforts and it was inspiring to see her cultivation, her happy, inquisitive chickens, and the area reserved for a new pig sty.

The Eye Allotments

The Eye Allotments; Chickens, Scarecrow and Calm Space

The weather was kind to us during our visit.  We had sunshine most of the time and the English countryside always looks good in sun.  Our hosts were generous with their time and thinking.  They planned some great walks and were prepared to drive us through bright, undulating landscapes to interesting villages, coastline and pubs.  Aldeburgh and the walk along the beach both north and south of the town as the sun set, was a particular highpoint.

Views of Aldeburgh

Views of Aldeburgh Including The Moot Hall And The Scallop By Maggi Hambling

More Views of Aldeburgh

More Views of Aldeburgh Including The Scallop and the Martello Tower

Another treat was Framlingham.  I had not heard of this town before (despite it apparently being Ed Sheeran’s home town and the setting for The Detectorists) but it is wonderfully set on relatively high ground near an open valley.  It’s full of historical buildings both in the centre and, most notably, on each side of The Framlingham Mere where the old and impressive castle looks across to the rather grand Framlingham College.

Framlingham, like the other villages and towns we visited, all seemed to have pretty hearts and striking, flint faced churches.  These were invariably oversized for the scale of the current local population but not, presumably, for the wealth of the communities when they were built centuries ago.  Having lived in the Cotswolds for many years, LSW and I would find it hard not to live among hills and sharply incised valleys but Suffolk has other charms and attractions.

Suffolk Flint-Faced Churches

Suffolk Flint-Faced Churches

LSW and I and our Suffolk friends have each known each other for between 35 and 40 years and so there was a lot of shared history to chew over as we journeyed around the countryside, drank the local beer and ate the excellent food they prepared for us.  We had a great time.

Pub in Fressingham

Fox And Goose Pub In Fressingham

In the week since our Suffolk trip we have returned to some reworking of the local neighbourhood plan and I have spent time helping to re-draft one of its sections.  That now will have to go on hold because, this coming week, I have two brief trips to London and a Forest Green Rovers game to see in Mansfield near where my parents live.

Upon my return from them I will draw breath before LSW and my set out on our next trip away together.  This time the trip is a little further afield than Suffolk as we revisit Australia before Youngest Son returns to the UK later this year.  All good….

Winter Catching Up

At last, a proper winter seems to have arrived.  We don’t have the extreme of the polar vortex that Canada and the northern states of the USA are currently experiencing, but we have had some frosty starts and, now, a heavy layer of snow.  School seems to be cancelled and kids are in the field opposite the house, sledging to their heart’s content.  The silent garden looks magical now it is cloaked in snow.  I know it is the increasing climate extremes that are the worry but it is comforting that we can still have real winter weather amid the trend towards global warming.

Snow And Sledging Outside Our Front Door

Snow And Sledging Outside Our Front Door

Middle Son texted to tell us London just has rain and in any case, the warmth of London’s buildings normally means that snow we see in rural areas becomes grey slush in the city centre.  However, London has other attractions and I was able to pay another visit last week.

The main reason for the visit was to meet up with some old work colleagues, as we do once or twice a year.  We worked together in 1977/8 and those times that were so formative to our early careers remain pretty vivid in our collective and shared memory.  We recalled some of those memories again.  We also caught up with more recent life developments and steered away from divisive Brexit debate sufficiently to make the get together over beers and curry very pleasant.

When I travel up to London for an event like this I have the flexibility of no time or work commitments plus the availability of a sofa bed in the flat we rent out to Eldest Son.  That enables planning of extra-curricular activity to maximise the diversity of fun during my stay.

Almost always, I include a trip to Rough Trade Records so I can work my way around the listening posts there and catch up with latest music they are promoting.  This time I also attended one of their free gigs.  The band, Toy, is one I have followed since I enjoyed them at the same venue in September 2012.  I’ve seen them a couple of times since including, believe it or not, at a remarkable gig primarily for the deaf/hard of hearing in 2015.  They were worth seeing for a fourth time and I’m sure they now have even more hair.

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Toy At Rough Trade

I also went to the Good Grief, Charlie Brown exhibition at Somerset House.  It was interesting to read about, and see through examples, how Charles M. Schultz developed his cartoon technique and characters.  The exhibition was also instructive on how Schultz managed, even as a white, middle class and relatively conventional American, to dabble in modern day issues such as gender identity, race, abortion, feminism and psychiatry/mental illness while growing his audience for his modest and understated Peanuts cartoon strips.  However, one would need to be a very dedicated follower to review all of the material on show and I think I grasped the main themes without concentrating on it all.

Charles M. Schultz's Characters From Peanuts And A Sample Early Cartoon

Charles M. Schultz’s Characters From Peanuts And A Sample Early Cartoon

Following a rather overly meaty breakfast (of three separate dishes of merguez sausage, black pudding and chorizo), I headed north to Stevenage for a Forest Green Rovers Football Club away game.  I watched us notch up another excellent win with my Best Man (BM) who lives nearby.  I then stayed a couple of nights with him and we spent the weekend watching more football, walking around the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) site where he used to work (as we had last September), and visiting St Albans.

Views At The RSPB Reserve, Sandy, Bedfordshire

St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral: Naves, St Albans Shrine, Mosaic Floor And 17th Century Graffiti

I hadn’t been to St Albans for years.  It still hold happy, though blurred, memories of my first excursion out of London to St Albans with my now Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) in her unassuming, idiosyncratic but effective Citroen Diane.  This time, BM and I visited the Roman ruins, the very old and lovely Cathedral and a very nice pub.  But we also saw the lake LSW and I held hands by over 35 years ago.

St Albans: Roman Theatre, Roman Mosaic And The Romantic Lake

St Albans: Roman Theatre, Roman Mosaic And The ‘Romantic’ Lake

I had a very relaxed and amusing time with BM. He continues to do big corporate work and travels a lot.  It was good to catch up on events in his complex and busy life but also to mentally compare his world with mine.  I’m very happy with my simpler, leisure-oriented lot.

Snowy Garden

Snowy Garden

Retirement Time

Now I am retired, and no longer have to spend 50-60 hours a week working or travelling to and from work, I can extend what used to be rushed tasks at home over longer periods.  I can also take a few more risks with events that I invest time in.  There have been some good examples of both in the last week or so.

I have spoken before in this blog about what I called ‘speed gardening’.  This was the result of the pressure I felt to get substantial tasks in the garden done in the slivers of time available at the weekends before my Sunday commute back to work in London.  I rushed around trying to get things done and, while it kept me fitter than I am now, it wasn’t altogether satisfactory enjoyment.  Now, if a job doesn’t get done as planned on one day, well, there is always tomorrow!

This week’s example was ‘doing the bonfire’.  The pile of garden detritus requiring disposal – and burning it is the most convenient if not the most environmentally friendly way – had become huge following some recent tree maintenance.  I had the time to salvage logs and ‘loglets’ pretty thoroughly but there was a large amount of brash together with a solid mass of other woody matter.  I moved the base of the bonfire pile (so any small creatures could escape) and organised the brash so Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I could load it easily onto the flames in batches.

We managed to clear half the waste in a couple of hours before darkness descended.  The process was very satisfying in some base animalistic way.  In my more relaxed and retired mode, I wasn’t concerned that we didn’t finish.  There is always another day.

The example of having more time to take risks with events was that, when I went up to London for a couple of days this week, primarily to see the Jusepe de Ribera exhibition before it closes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I also booked a couple of other events about which I knew very little.  One was successful the other rather less so but, either way, I have so much more leisure time now that success or otherwise seems less crucial.

Of course, a successful event is still to be aimed at (time and energy is not infinite, after all). Certainly the Ribera exhibition, entitled ‘Art of Violence’, was riveting and impactful.  There weren’t many large paintings but those that were on show really conveyed the pain of martyrs on the way to their martyrdom.  As impressive were the numerous, much smaller sketches and wash and ink drawings of torture and martyrdom.  These were so intricate and compelling that they drew you into close inspection despite the horror they depicted.  My visit was complemented by the chance to catch up briefly with Eldest Son’s (ES’s) previous girlfriend who works at the gallery; we remain friends.

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The Martyrdom Of St Bartolomew By Jusepe de Ribera (sorry the picture fails to capture the piercing look of the Saint)

Examples Of Ink And Wash Drawings By Ribera

Another, more unexpected success, was that ES and I went to a lecture on, and demonstration of, how Russians in the Cold War created illicit copies of western music during Stalin’s regime (and often went to jail when caught).  The fascinating twist was that, because materials were scarce, the early copies were made by creating grooves on discarded x-rays with home-made lathes.  The resulting ‘records’ therefore had x-ray pictures on them.  Although the sound quality wasn’t great, the recordings were much sought-after snatches of the forbidden jazz and rock and roll of the west and each was unique.

Stephen Coates Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project

Stephen Coates (Ex-The Real Tuesday Weld) Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project And The History Of Illicit Music Recording In Cold War Russia

Pictures and video footage of interviews with some of the protagonists in the schemes to create the lathes, to procure the x-rays (being discarded by hospitals because they were inflammable and presented a fire risk) and to cut the recordings added extra life to some well told stories about the copying process.  These stories recalled, and tied in neatly with, aspects of the film Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski that I saw with ES recently, books I read years ago by Josef Skvorecky about underground music in Czechoslovakia, and also an excellent book I read recently called A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

The evening culminated in Thurston Moore – a guitarist previously with Sonic Youth – recording a couple of things onto x-ray disks so they could be played back to us.  It was pretty visceral stuff – in a very different way to the Ribera exhibition – and ES and I will remember it for a long time.

The X-Ray Audio Project With A Thurston Moore Demonstration

Less successful, but entertaining nonetheless, was a gig I went to in one of my old stomping grounds in Homerton, Hackney.  Chats Palace was the venue and it seemed much the same as I could remember from when I was last there in the early 1980’s.  I saw William Doyle who I liked in his incarnation as East India Youth a few years back and who has produced some interesting ambient music recently.  He now has a new band who are preparing to release their first album together.  They were good in parts but, I felt, still finding their feet.

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

I may have much more leisure time now but, when I’m in London, I have to squeeze in plenty of activity.  Fortunately ES and Middle Son both had time for breakfast with me.  I also walked around Dulwich Park, visited Rough Trade Records (as usual), went to Southwark Cathedral for the first time, snacked in Borough Market and, in lovely weather, took in the scale of London from London Bridge.  I still love London and have the time to enjoy it.

Views From London Bridge

Views From London Bridge