[modestly] better news

For Bax and Deirdre. (and Myrna took a lot of the photos.)

Charles Conder, A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Melbourne. Oil on canvas. Held by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Look at it again. What IS he doing? Two lots of John Cleese in the one picture. But summer. Yes. Definitely Summer.

No one in my vicinity needs to be told it’s been a dud summer: a tragic summer, a horrible terrible summer. Coronavirus is making the running just now, but it was the bushfires that did the lasting damage. At one stage there was a report, now seared into my memory, that four percent of Australia was on fire.

This was the official estimate of areas prone to bushfire in August last year.

That is a pretty good description of exactly where they happened. Were we prepared? No WE weren’t. Scomo wasn’t. The Federal Government wasn’t. But the fire chiefs and emergency services were.

Not perhaps for the scale of what occurred, nor its intensity and the massive damage to the biota. Over 18 million hectares burned as of mid-January. Two billion animals are estimated to have been killed.

This occurred mostly in forested mountainous terrain. Just over twenty per cent of Australia’s forests burnt this summer.

This is a disaster of this type unprecedented at any other time or in any other place. Biodiversity is concentrated in forests: they are home to more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. So, when forests burn, the biodiversity on which humans depend for their long-term survival also disappears.

For some reason, that seems to be a hard idea to get across. It’s not because animals are cute that there is cause for concern. Nor should we be grateful for the relative absence of insects. And, if you should need one, it is actually a VERY good reason to cancel the duck-hunting season.

But this is intended to be a [modestly] better news story.

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We’d been spoiled by a very successful trip to Warrnambool but we still needed some eucalyptal air in our lungs. Nothing arduous, nothing too far away: just a taste of the Alps. So we decided to do the Baw Baw plateau walk or bits of it: Mt St Gwinear car park along ski trails to the top of St Gwinear, down through some boggy flats up to join the Alps walking trail, a climb to Mt St Phillack, lunch at Freeman’s Flat, then another kilometre or two to The Tors, and back to where we came from. On a most beautiful day.

The cairn marking the top of Mt St Gwinear, 1505m ASL from memory. St Phillack 1585.

Saint Gwinear? Celtic martyr, possibly apocryphal, probably named Fingar. Saint Phillack then? Irish (or British) martyr, not well enough established even to be apocryphal. Could have been named Felec or Felicitas. File naming process under ‘Mysteries’.

So, a climb up to the ridge in the background and following it for eight or so km. That’s the story. (But look at the form of the mountain ash in the foreground. Premier League material.)

I wasn’t sure whether or not we might run into large burnt patches. I had a vague recollection that Erica, close at hand, had been evacuated in a fire emergency.

But look what we could see on this lovely day.

In this photo the horizon would be 80-100km away and it was thickly forested all that way. The fires had been further east and north and, tragic though they had been, there are still mountain forests left in Victoria and we were in the middle of one at its very best, with plenty of radiant heat in the atmosphere and water under foot to sustain and encourage more growth.

We had begun the day at Peterson’s Lookout leaning over a pulpit of grey conglomerate to peer down at the Tyers River which looked like it had plenty of water in it. Hoorah.

It wasn’t Early early, but as the shadow indicates, about the time you might expect bird song. But the cacophony of bird noise as soon as we got out of the car was an encouraging surprise. They were all there. Kookas announced our presence and soon they were all joining in: yellow-tailed black cockatoos creaking away, magpies chortling and gurgling, Major Mitchells and Sulphur-crested cockies squarking, a lyre bird or two chiming in with copies and a chain saw on the other bank, flights of crimson rosellas careening through the undergrowth, tree creepers creeping on trees, finches foraging, grey shrike-thrushes just being their modestly glamorous selves. The point is that they were all there, all correct and in glorious disorder. They might have been migrants from the carnage elsewhere. But at least they were there.

As well as the remarkable fungus, this photo has got a fly and an ant in it. The March flies were tiresome, as they can be, but after I got into stride I couldn’t begrudge them their place and their role in it and if they were going to survive by nipping at my legs, then … just get on with it I guess.

Over St Gwinear (which has its own Facebook page!) you come to Gwinear Flat. It mightn’t look like it, but this is a wonderland of vegetation. You might be looking at 50 or 60 different species of vegetation.

Myrna is bending over looking at these: snowy white mountain gentians.

They are snow gums in the background, and these ones, so eminently photogenic, haven’t been burnt. (Scoparia after flowering in the foreground.)

They are ‘young’ (maybe 60-70 yo) and briskly healthy. Muscular in fact.

And this is one of these precious places that I have written about a number of times: an alpine mossy bog.

This one is full of all sorts of bits and pieces: mint bush, members of the Bossiaea family (pea bushes), Scoparia, sedges, heaths, but under all that there will be mosses and bogs holding water and allowing it to ooze into trickles which become creeklets constantly aggregating to find their way eventually into a river. What you are looking at is an example of the source of 30 per cent of all the water that flows into the Murray. And exposure to serial fires will kill them. But not this one. It seemed luxuriously healthy.

The flowers were not at their peak but they were out: trigger plants (below), Billy Buttons, alpine daisys, Everlastings in several colours.

But perhaps the best news. Regularly along the track, as usual almost always on some prominent feature, a protruding rock or root, a firmly embedded branch, we would come across these — fresh wombat scats.

All is well in parts of the world.

Cockatoo Island

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Not Goat Island, Snapper Island, Shark Island, not Pinchgut nor Spectacle Island. It’s Cockatoo Island, the biggest island in Sydney Harbour, about 3.5 km west of the bridge: filled out to 18 hectares, carved into new shapes, three-dimensionally, from its original triangle. Great slices taken out of it for shipyards.

In the foreground of this photo is an old pump, a remnant of the island’s past — in this instance as a ship building site.

For three nights we stayed in the building on the top of this artificial cliff, what once were supervisors’ cottages, which have been refurbished for visitors.

The decks provided a wonderful albeit often rather smoky view down the Harbour.

And no. Don’t be silly. It’s not smoke. It’s night time.

The island has a resonant history which, as we toured, I couldn’t help but see as art.

Welcome.

Forever

The Sydney Harbour foreshore is rich in evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal life, most evident in rock carvings and shellfish middens. But no such evidence has been found on Cockatoo Island, the Aboriginal name of which is Wareamah. The island is located at the intersection of the lands of the four tribes of the Eora nation which may provide one reason for this. But it also seems possible that the island may have been a place where women’s ritual took place, a special place not for domestic habitation. It is also possible that it was in reaction to what was observed in the 1839 Sydney Gazette: ‘It is without water and is said to abound in snakes.’

The current harbour foreshore: a jangle of tree roots, sandstone blocks natural and ashlared, remnant and contemporary infrastructure, 1950s ideas —  usually rendered in concrete — about how the seaside should be, tenacious and lush sub-tropical vegetation. Patterns of both contestation and settlement, one strong line matched by another, both ferns and sandstone blocks supporting the play of light.

See what I mean? It’s art.

Convict prison 1839-69

Norfolk Island was bulging at the seams. In Tasmania Lieutenant-Governor Franklin was refusing to accept any more second-conviction convicts. ‘No place in New South Wales would be so well calculated [for an extension of prison facilities] as Cockatoo island, surrounded as it is by deep water, and yet under the very eye of authority,’ wrote Governor Gipps.

As can be customary, the execution didn’t always match the calculation.

‘Mr Inspector Lane … has paid much attention to the condition of the prisoners at night. He has often seen them at the iron gratings gasping for fresh air from without, and he “wonders how they live”. The brutalising effect on the prisoners is admitted by all, and it is described by some as terrible in depravity. Crimes of the deepest dye are committed.’ (Select Committee on Public Prisons, 1861)

There’s a silence about this image. It looks like deep breath, clear air. Your eye might be drawn by the yachts in the background or attempt (unsuccessfully) to locate the Drummoyne Pool. The implication is time past rather than any reflection on what happened here.

‘I saw Swan sitting in a recess … I thought it would be a grand opportunity for settling old scores with my tormentor. Walking quickly to where he was, I sprang at him, seized him by the two ears, and in death-like grasp, with the full strength of my powerful arms, dashed his head against the stone wall. The blood spouted in torrents from his mouth and nostrils.’ (William Derrincourt, Old Convict Days, published after long detours in 1899)

Rothko.

You can look into the blank entries to the oubliette chambers, isolation cells excavated recently after decades of disappearance, forgotten-ness in fact as well as name. These oubliettes were entered from above via a ladder which was subsequently hauled up, or you might be thrown in. No natural light. Just you and sandstone, its considerable natural attractions turning into an implacable torture.

‘From its roof I was placed in a cell, six feet by eight feet and nine feet high. As soon as the trapdoor closed I was besieged by an army of enormous rats’. In the morning not only had the rats eaten through his jacket, used as a pillow, where his food was stashed but they had also eaten the toes out of his boots.

The architecture seems to request acknowledgment of its symmetry. But it might also be a calmness onto which you can paste your own thoughts. Even though this evening the sky was celestial, the scabbling and weathering on the sandstone ensures that the symmetry is not clean, that it has character, that it prompts a response. They are gun racks (in the guardroom) and firing slits in the far wall although it is unclear where they might be aimed. But you don’t need to know. You can just appreciate the visual form.

Reform School 1871-88

In 1871 the island became an industrial school for orphaned girls and a reformatory for girls convicted of crimes. The Vernon, an aged ship, was anchored off the north-east corner as a training ship for as many as 500 orphaned boys.

‘ … Three girls came abreast of the ship, in a semi nude state, throwing stones at the windows of the workshops — blaspheming dreadfully and conducting themselves more like fiends than human beings. I was compelled to send all the boys onto the lower deck to prevent them viewing such a contaminatory exhibition.’ (The Superintendent of the Vernon to the Principal Under Secretary, 1871)

Shipyards 1913-1992

The island had been a shipyard for decades before 1913. Excavations, by convicts, often in leg irons, sometimes up to their waist in water, of the graceful slopes of Fitzroy Dock were begun in 1847 and completed in 1857.

How does this sort of thing work? (A graving dock, like a grave, right?) You drive the boat in (sail originally), shut the gate, pump the water out and then do whatever you need. Furiously maritime. In more recent years it was claimed that Cockatoo Island workers could dock a boat, clean and paint it and send it on its way in eight hours.

During the years between the reform school and the focus on shipbuilding and maintenance, the island returned to being a prison for petty criminals. However, in 1913 the Commonwealth acquired it to become the dockyards for the Royal Australian Navy. Busy during the First World War, it became frantic during the second.

  1. Titan Floating Crane (20 storeys high, able to lift 150 tonnes); 2. USS LST 471; 3. HMAS Australia; 4. River Hunter; 5. TSS Nairana; 6. HMAS Hobart; 7. HMAS Bataan; 8. HMAS Arunta; 9. USS Glimer; 10. HMAS Barcoo

You will also note how the island has become almost completely covered in building. Perhaps half, by area, of these buildings have now been removed leaving big aprons,

one of which (below) has become a home for fixed tents. The friends who took us there played a significant role in setting this arrangement up.

But plenty of evidence of ship-building remains. In the photos above and below are four steel plate benders so heavy and unwieldy it was decided to leave them where they were, one of the island’s many sculptural wonders.

Close at hand is the slipway, a symphony in concrete and rust industrialised by the regularity of measurement markings, made art by sea air and abandonment — an installation, a major work.

Below, a wall of the design wing, one of the monster storage rooms for patterns (pattern makers: leading edge 50s technology, even in retrospect so impressive).

Acknowledging Mondrian, but better. There’s more work and life in the colour gradients of the panels than anything he painted. So much work has gone into creating an effect of harmony. The rusty grilles balance the white form in the lower quadrant; the vent at the top and the little black door play off each other. Even the rust on the corrugated iron works. Wonderful.

More than anything else it was this that set me off thinking about the island as a gigantic art site.

But once I began I couldn’t stop. Ships … mass, scale, weight, power, size.

And just look at these. Form follows function: folders, benders, stampers, presses, guillotines. From another world. What superb pieces.

Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, eat your hearts out.

The machine room is the oldest workroom on the island. Built by convicts, again out of sandstone, it is left with some machines just sitting — creatures in steel, wildly complex but stationery, full of potential but not about to burst into life. Not without a figure present, a turner in overalls and boots with an oilcan and a big rag hanging out of his/her back pocket. Not without Kevin.

Static — but visually there is so much going on. The flavour of the way the paint is flaking off the sandstone, the soft light from the arched windows, the colours in the timber supporting the gantry, the offset of the variegated bricks in the middle of the background, the effect of the translucent but green-tinged fibre glass cladding. Suddenly those steel beams spring to life, and you become conscious that the joists above them are original: old, knotted and weathered but, as appropriate for a workshop and because of their herringbone strutting, now rarely practiced, still true and square.

A figure (thank you MM) adds a graceful sway to the squareness of the composition and the power of the gantry.

The wall to the right contains several works of abstract expressionism.

And finally a little bit of social realism: the entry to Dog-Leg Tunnel. Banksy (Very) Light.

‘The closure of the island as an operational dockyard was one of those events in the life of a city of region that signals the end of an era. For many it was a jolt to realise that an industrial site had run its course. The fraternity of Cockatoo Island workers and their families, generations of tradesmen, naval architects and administrators, felt the loss most acutely. They understood the depth of experience, knowledge and hard work that had been invested in the dockyard, the decades of achievement that had contributed to Australia’s economy and naval preparedness. They understood too, how easily this great legacy might slip from view.’

This comes from a history of Cockatoo Island from which I’ve borrowed heavily. The legacy is still there, if not in full view, readily accessible — made far more so by the efforts of the Sydney Harbour Trust and its hospitable and helpful employees. The island hosts concerts, art exhibitions, school excursions, film making, parties, openings and closings. It seems to me it’s going just fine.

If there is a niggle of concern it would be about the fortunes of the hundreds of tradesmen and, by the time of closure, tradeswomen, and apprentices and their knowledge and skills. This country sometimes seems just so willing to sell off capacity to make things. Maybe they’ve been absorbed into the shipyards of the present and future. I hope so.

We left the island having had an exceptionally good time, and because it’s an island we left by boat just as we had arrived. One of the key points I guess is that it is a maritime experience, foreign to but delightful for landlubbers like me. You take the ferry from Cockatoo Island to Circular Quay. Camera pointed, I continued with the idea of encounters with art.

A repeat pattern — regularity — suggestive of endless shoe boxes, set off by life boats with a ‘safe’ Hi-Viz roof along with decorative ribboned ‘handles’ of rope for floundering souls to grasp. Secure hatches and guaranteed flotation regardless of the size of the seas. It mightn’t be exciting, but it is orderly and secure. The Titanic, but so very safe.

It turns out that this ship is Ovation of the Seas, the ship from which on December 9th last year a party disembarked to visit Whakaari also known as White Island, just off the coast of New Zealand.

Cornelia Parker at the MCA

Cornelia Parker is a major figure in the British art world. It was a coup for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to mount the first major retrospective of her work. And a challenge.

Her most famous work is this one — a shed (full of shed-like material) blown up by members of the British Army caught mid-explosion.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 (with all the bits and pieces suspended from a grid on the ceiling).

Not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the bits and pieces here are the remnants of a violin. One observer at least has recoiled in horror at this discovery. You never know just how people will react do you, just what will catch their eye.

* * * * * *

I had never heard of Ms Parker and as usual didn’t have my brain quite in gear as I entered the exhibition. I saw this.

That looks interesting I thought. Bits of dirt suspended from the ceiling. Very carefully I should add. I rather liked it. It had a rather superior sort of stillness about it and the shadows provided another dimension.

I read the label. The name of the work is ‘Subconscious of a Monument’. The bits of dirt, ‘desiccated clay’, have been dug out from under the Tower of Pisa — dug out not for the purposes of art but engineering — which as a result leans less than it used to. One question, perhaps the first: Uh huh … so errr … why did she do that? The second: what should we think?

Immediately next to it is this video.

A Palestinian resident in Jerusalem speaks about his family’s work of making crowns from thorn bush cuttings. In peak months he sells several thousand. His hands and those of his son are pitted with the endless cuts and piercings that come from the work. They seem to be sitting on seats out of a wrecked plane. His son is completely impassive.

Self-described, the man himself is simply a businessman making a living. He sees no irony or complexity in what he is doing. But we can. It’s hardly possible to avoid. He’s a Palestinian/ it’s Jerusalem/ they are selling crowns of thorns to Christians/ it’s a business/ and so on and so on … There are a series of big stories attached to these ideas. And is THAT art?

I was getting more interested. There was the suggestion of a particular sort of British mind at work. British? Not British. English. The sort of Englishperson who loves games and unravelling webs of knowledge. Stephen Fry.

Round the corner is her ‘Magna Carta’, a 13m long embroidery for an Oxford College and the British Library to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its signing. In fact, a 13m long embroidery of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Magna Carta’ on 15 June 2014, the 799th anniversary, exact right down to the references (about a quarter of its total length) and the illustrations.

The particular section at left, about 200x150mm, took 400 hours, and a great deal of skill, to embroider.

It’s an interesting reminder that Pope Innocent III was involved in the advent of the very English Magna Carta. England was mixed up in Europe a long time before the EU came along.

So far so dramatic. Good, but just as people were doing, you could walk past it pretty easily without paying much attention. The idea of the Magna Carta mightn’t mean much on a Sydney summer afternoon.

But the more assiduous viewer then reads that, to rub in its theme of legality, most of the piece was hand-stitched by 33 convicts. All sorts of celebrities contributed bits and pieces. Germaine Greer did two sentences. Jarvis Cocker stitched ‘common people’ the name of one of his songs. Julian Assange did one ‘freedom’, Edward Snowden did one ‘liberty’. Several senior justices of the British High Court contributed (‘justice’, ‘denial’ and ‘delay’). One sentence was stitched during his visit to Guantanamo Bay by a human rights lawyer. The work includes a tea stain from a prisoner’s cup and a spot of blood from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (‘contemporary political relevance’) who accidentally pricked his finger while sewing.

Like the Pisa clay piece, an understorey (and an under story) has been built. Literality, but with a twist. Awaiting discovery. And embroidery.

* * * * * * *

From time to time Ms Parker likes smashing things up to reconstruct. (See, for example, the shed above.) ‘Re-Presenting’ she calls it, in the sense of looking at things in another way. She has described such things as ‘cartoon deaths’, the sort of thing that might happen to Tom or Jerry, while pointing that, even if this has been smoothed out and disguised in the finishing stages, sculptural practice usually entails a certain amount of violence.

For ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ she drove a steamroller over items of silver — cutlery, food service, trays, musical instruments, vases … she’s ‘drawn to things with a past’ — to create what she now describes as thirty ‘pools’ which have ‘become almost natural objects’. They were there at the MCA suspended in patterns, ‘pools’ I guess, properly. Thirty of them.

In a 1992 piece, ‘Words that Define Gravity,’ Parker wrote a dictionary definition of ‘gravity’ out longhand, and then magnified and replicated each of the words in cast lead and threw them off top of the chalk cliffs of southern England. To complete the work, she collected the lead words, mangled by the fall and left with chalk impressions, and suspended them on threads just above gallery floor level. ‘The words were made illegible by real gravity’.

She returns to ideas to enlarge them. In 1997 Parker exhibited Mass (Colder Darker Matter), suspending the charred remains of a church that had been struck by lightning in Texas while she had had a residency there. Eight years later, Parker made a companion piece, Anti-Mass, using charcoal from a Kentucky church which had been destroyed by arson. She discovered when she went to look at what had happened that in the US the cause of burning churches is rarely lightning, especially when they have largely black congregations. She also discovered a group of white Americans who make it their job to help those churches get rebuilt. Strings of narrative attach to these pieces.

Her work is also often fun. She has made a collection of ‘faces of Jesus’ occurring in unlikely places, on a piece of tortellini and in oil stains found on the floor of car parks for example, or this one in the end of a Kit Kat. Something of a triumph. (And, it must be said, this is observation of the keenest order.)

* * * * * * *

So what do we have here then?

We know that she is absorbed by found objects. But she likes the back of things, the underside, what’s left when you take things away (like the War Room, at left, what’s left when you stamp out millions of poppies for Remembrance Day), what things are like before they’re constructed (the beginnings of a pistol in Sydney). She likes oppositions (embroideries with antonyms, one set of words on one side, the other on the reverse, both showing through); she likes comparisons and measurements (wire drawn from the silver in a melted teaspoon to the length of the height of Niagara Falls for example). She likes the attachment of stories and consequences (the Magna Carta).

She offers an invitation to join in these rather strange perceptual journeys. Things can be seen this way, she says. Fun isn’t it. And interesting. And challenging. And sometimes beautiful, or if not beautiful, at least deeply satisfying.

She describes herself as a grasshopper, but I don’t think any other creature, bird insect animal, has a mind quite like hers.

She is an original, an oddity that I can’t help thinking of as English, with the directness and confident self-exposure of an upbringing in the shires and, paradoxically, with feet squarely planted on the ground (while her eyes are darting round). It might be an unusual form of common sense on view.

The works can be easily read; you’re not tested by establishing the meaning but by the profusion of meanings. You can have a look at her (good, strong, immensely active) mind at work but you’ll have to bring your own game. In that regard they can sometimes seem a bit like a general knowledge quiz, (speaking as someone who believes emphatically in the general knowledge quiz). It might be that set of demands that make it art, the clincher anyway.

There is also a firm and attractive morality at work. It might seem political, but it’s not. Something far more fundamental is in play. I liked that.

White Rabbit

The White Rabbit must be one of the most interesting galleries in Australia.

It’s private. It’s free. It used to be a Rolls Royce showroom. It has a tea house attached which has recently extended itself to serving scones besides boa (dumplings). And it only exhibits contemporary Chinese art — in most instances owned by the proprietors of the gallery, Kerr and Judith Neilson, now divorced but still hopelessly rich (think billions).

I only mention this because the strong implication of many of the pieces we saw was that this might not be such a good idea.

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Entry point. A bronze, covered in car duco, four metres high: Red Memory — Asking God. Tagline: ‘The pig symbolises the speed of growth of China today with its raw gluttony, greed and avarice.’ (Chen Wenling still lives in Fujian and he can still/ is allowed still make sculptures like that.)

Superfluity — having too much, abandoning traditional values, becoming immersed in materialism and commerce and the rapacity that engenderswas a recurring theme in this massive retrospective of the owner’s favourite works.

Like this.

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And this.

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But it wasn’t all consumed with consumption. Some of it was simply strange.

These are two separate works, but the combination adds a certain frisson. The balloon inhaled till it was fully inflated and then exhaled before inhaling again. A near life-size taxi nearby did something similar.

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In a lot of the work there was an undercurrent of … what? Threat? Something to knock you off balance certainly.

Even in pieces as apparently anodyne as this.

The conventions of the portraiture are venerable, hundreds of years old: pale, calm, settled, face slightly tilted, expression only to be found in the half open mouth and the way her hands are clasped — perhaps a certain wistfulness. But her uniform indicates that she is a member of the Red Guard which, during the Cultural Revolution, was responsible for all manner of unspeakable violence. That might or might not be the point. 

Life is considered a tangle where at least some of the threads will be unknown quantities. This is only a small portion of the work. And yes, they’re people — in the work as a whole perhaps several thousand. Wherever one can see an expression it is the surprised fear of calamity.

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Perhaps this wonderful calamity …

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A coloured bronze casting. Interest wherever you choose to look. Every face, every posture, contains a story, even that of the bloke we can’t see over the back having a pee. This is awash in circumstance: full of aspects, full of responses, full of well understood and imagined humanity. There it is — don’t shy away — that’s what life is.

Or this sculpture, a three-dimensional rendering of a school photograph. The artist is the woman far right third row. Is it the fact that it is drained of colour that makes it unsettling? White is the Chinese colour of death.

You look at it once and think, oh yeah. Wow. Very smart. Mmm actually so clever. Beautiful work. So smart. In fact how the hell did she do that? Then you look at it again … and you’re unsettled. And you look again to try to work out why. You peer closer. But they are looking at you with their blind eyes just as hard as you’re looking at them. They’re silent. But they’ve started whispering to you. And what is it they’re whispering? They’re saying you think you know what this is, but actually you’ve got no idea. Better go look at something else before you start freaking out.

* * * * *

My companions found these works generally ‘hard’ and ‘bloodless’, with little sign of the artist and their feelings. I don’t know that I disagree with that. But I felt far more positively about them.

One thing shrieking from each work is the quality of the craft. On the top floor there was a pile of stones about 3m. wide adjusting itself with occasional heaving motions. Not a great work, but you couldn’t argue with the capability and thoroughness of the construction. And the taxi crash is a bronze! From memory it is about a metre and a half wide, and yet all that detail has been captured in a casting.

They were remarkably inventive — although perhaps it might seem like that because they are generated from another culture — and there was very little cheap about any of them.

This might have been the most obvious of them all.

‘W’ Bush and Wen Jiabao, ‘vulgar officials who pretend to be refined and cultured’, surrounded by icons of China’s rural past (the flowers) and grand cars suggesting the industrial cashed-up present. But even these are stunning embroideries and there’s something rather remarkable about the cast and pattern of highlights in the faces.

But I look at the whole and think that these are works that have been done by grown-ups.

They seem to be built on vast mounds of digested experience of humanity, not simple, not clear, but digested with heedless Chinese juices. This is not the art of comfort or fellow feeling or admiration. There is a toughness about it all that separates it from easy looking. This is art where the nerve endings have been tempered, possibly quite harshly. (One formidable example, an installation with ‘slave workers’ hanging upside down as slabs of meat waiting to be butchered.)

Finally, there is the weird fact that these exist at all, that they can exist, and in such a sophisticated form.

The first time we went to China 32 years ago, we went looking for art in Beijing and found it, on the customary overwhelming scale — a national competition with 1000s of contributors from all over the country. There were lots of nods to scroll art: waterfalls, exotic rock formations, teeny-tiny old people with a wooden staff and a conical hat and loads of this or that, mist, cloud, a dragon. But really most of the pieces would not have looked out of place at the Camberwell Rotary Art Show. Horses, pretty girls, land and sea scapes, boats at anchor, wizened relatives or just random old people. (Not babies. Why don’t people do babies?)

Then six years ago we found 798, the new arts precinct in a middle ring suburb of Beijing — and the revolution had occurred.

This is party members holding up a huge bundle of yuan, renmimbi, ‘the people’s money’. That’s what makes a party! And there was this utterly memorable tank made out of leather …

It’s the fearlessness of the work that’s so surprising. The sedition in 798 — and at White Rabbit — was more trenchant and more obvious than the crowd behaviour in Xinjiang. But somehow, who knows how, they get away with it.

Maybe that’s what we are looking at. That’s the grown-up edge, the constant awareness that art really can be a very serious and adult business indeed.

Christchurch: Recoveries

IMG_0148.jpgScott of the Antarctic. I have a fixed memory of seeing him years ago in Latimer Square over the road from where we were staying rather than next to the river nudging the CBD as he now does, and apparently always has. I remember how his gloves looked weird as though suffering from some sort of gigantism, and that there was an odd stump affair holding up his back leg. I do. Clear as crystal. Memory (shakes head), traducer …

Now I also discover that the statue, sculpted by Scott’s wife, Kathleen, was never finished. The ‘stump’ is helping to hold the whole shebang up. The gloves were to be reworked. (Good idea. They add a hint of jocular insincerity to what is clearly intended to be a serious work.) It was commissioned in 1913, started (in Italy, the war) in 1916 and the ribbon was cut in 1917 in the understanding (hers) that further work would occur. It never did. (1917?! During the war to end all wars. Just how far away from Europe is New Zealand, and for that matter just how big a deal was Scott’s expedition?)

I also remembered, correctly, that the inscription includes a late extract from Scott’s diary.

I do not regret this journey, which shows
that Englishmen can endure hardships,
help one another, and meet death with
as great fortitude as ever in the past.

May I suggest reference to Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure for further insight into this specifically English form of masochism, that of building an identity out of the romance of defeat. Amundsen got to the Pole (and back, losing no one) 33 days earlier because he was better equipped, better organised, more experienced and less full of, what can I say, lordly self-engrossed bullshit.

Christchurch’s relevance is that Scott left from Lyttleton, nearly but not quite a suburb, and Kathleen was travelling there to meet him when she learnt of his death.

He fell off his plinth breaking both legs on the 22 Feb 2011, along with a lot of the rest of the city, in what could only be called a catastrophe. But now, … he’s back! Gloves and all. We were there, quite incidentally, for the re-installation ceremony.

The statue looks north to what was in 1917 the key civic buildings. And now eight years later? Everything back? Sorted?IMG_0158.jpgNo. Still work to be done. Fortitude still required.

* * * * * *

A catastrophe.

The earthquake destroyed or rendered unusable 90 percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings. 12,000 other properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. More tellingly, 185 people died.

If you want an idea of scale, today’s papers are full of horror about the possible dollar cost of the Australian 2019/20 bushfires. Could be as much as $1.2 or even $2 billion. Horrific. But not long ago the NZ Reserve Bank estimated the total construction cost of the rebuild in Christchurch to be about $40 billion, $16 billion for each of residential and commercial construction and around $7 billion for infrastructure. And that is the construction cost. There are so many other costs involved. (I don’t want to spoil my point about the magnitude — and concentration — of what happened in Christchurch, but in Australia, for example, the unimaginable damage of what is happening this very day to the natural environment and its constituents can never be quantified.)

A lot has happened in eight years. We were there in 2015 and I thought then that it looked at least partly like a gigantic building site. The motifs were chain link fences, blasted heath car parks loosely covered with grey road metal, public art and shipping containers.2015-07-22 14.37.18.jpgThat was then;IMG_0177 (1).jpgthis is now. It’s not over yet by any means.

On the more recent visit our favourite coffee shop, the C-One, was still there, still standing, but like a monumental outrider rather than a molar in a set of teeth.IMG_0174.jpgWhat was it serving? And this is important.

Top left below are Lamingtons w/- white chocolate, coconut and [I quote] ‘a hypodermic berry syringe’. But just below the Banoffie Pies and the Custard Squares and to the right of the Caramel Walnut Brownies and the Marshmallow Caramel Slice are the Hemp Raw Balls (bottom right): w/- walnuts, almonds, linseeds [sic], sunflower seeds, dates, apricots and prunes [the entirety, just in case it’s not clear] dipped in vegan chocolate, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and Kako Samoa (refined sugar free, dairy free, vegan, gluten free, contains nuts). By some lights extreme sure, but up to the minute, the very instant in fact. NZ scones might have gone off, and tragically we think this is possible, but there is no obvious impediment to the boundaries of innovative edibles.IMG_0168.jpg

Four years ago this plaque was embedded in the seats along the footpath outside.img_1908.jpgIs that what has happened? I don’t know. But the view from that seat in 2015 was this.img_1829.jpgAnd now it’s this.IMG_0170.jpgBack, and going: and I am pleased to say including corgius intactus. They survived.

Miro restaurant (a much more interesting chocolatey red than appears here), which had for several years housed squatters, is another example of fastidious restoration20190205-NAT_3770+midlands+building.jpgwith very stylish interiors.original_sin_-interior_seating.jpg

There are some interesting new buildings but not as many as I thought there might be. Bouncing on huge isolators, this is an extension to the main hospital. The ‘X’ feature on the right is a structural member.IMG_0160.jpg

I thought this was wonderful.IMG_0175 (1).jpgŌtautahi: the place/home of (Te Potiki) Tautahi, the Maori name for the place where some of Christchurch is now, specifically near the fire station next to the river some distance from this building. But why this is so striking is that we are looking at a flat surface (with two obvious indents where the balconies are). It used to be a flat cream brick wall, and now it isn’t. L’oeil is certainly tromped. Just wonderful. And part of the new groovy area which was never far from here. Maybe that’s the Amundsen approach to recovery.

As might be obvious this was one of several beautiful days (i.e. before it got to -4C in Dunedin), IMG_0163.jpgand Hagley Park, undamaged by the quake, was as glorious as ever. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to talk about a recovery from something that never happened, but this massive park in the middle of the city must be some sort of ‘recovery’ salve for the body politic.

Recovery is a complex notion. It might be assumed that it means return to a prior state. If so, there is no recovery and never will be from a natural disaster. Things will not be the same. The flavour of life, the form and colours of the background, social and economic as well as topographical, will have changed forever. I didn’t talk to enough people to get any idea about what they thought had happened but, even eight years after, the local paper ‘The Press’ still has plenty of column space for earthquake-related issues.

IMG_0715 (1).jpgSo over its centuries of life what has this magnificent tree seen?

The answer of course is nothing. Not a cracker. Trees can’t see. When SmoCo, the Australian Prime Minister talks about ‘the terrible threat that nature provides to this country’ he seems to be suggesting that, if not vision, ‘nature’ has agency and for that reason needs confinement, punishment even, a damned good thrashing! This is the sentiment getting a strong run in Australia’s Murdoch media — we must burn everything down to avoid everything being burnt down.

The real reminder should be that the only part of ‘nature’ that is capable of generating a threat is humankind. Only we can construct that as an idea. ‘Nature’ — if that’s what we call the climate, the vegetation, the landscape and its animal, bird and insect populations, the seas and rivers, the environment of which we are a part — may contain threats, but it doesn’t make them. 

‘Threats’ come from the idea that humanity’s task is to subdue nature and ‘have dominion over it’. If subdue means damage we’re going well. ‘Achieving dominion over nature’, a very strange idea in itself, will never occur; and only people who haven’t experienced droughts, earthquakes, fire, wind or marine storms would assume otherwise. This is the irony of the anthropocene age: we can make a first class mess of things, but we can’t control them.

This is where Scott (of the Antarctic rather than the Shire) and his ilk come in handy. They have words for confronting the implacability of ‘nature’: resolution, fortitude, backbone, fibre, pluck, dauntlessness. And those words are helpful to some degree. Who could complain about someone displaying fortitude?

But in terms of recovery efforts, if I had to choose I’d be turning myself inside out to make sure Amundsen was in charge.

Mount Buff

For all those Chalet honeymooners (John and Jo, Gil and Mem among them), and Bax and Ede who know a good lookout when they see one.

* * * * * * * *IMG_0266.jpg

From its other side, the west, the European explorers Hume and Hovell thought this looked like reclining buffalo. Its ‘Horn’ is to the left and its ‘Hump’ in the central area. A buffalo? Mmmm well no. Not really. That said I’m not a European explorer and it is no longer 1824. But according to current usage it is Mount Buffalo, one of the most interesting and certainly the most romantic of the Victorian alps. I know a dozen couples who had their honeymoon at the Chalet. That’s one reason, but there are so many more.

The Taugaurong and Minjambuttu peoples, indigenous to the area, far more appropriately called the mountain Dordordonga, The Friendly Mountain. They spent their summers on its plateau feasting on the Bogong moths which bred there gathering in their millions on rock walls and in crevices. 

5837-large.jpgFrom time to time in the past I have wondered how you might prepare Bogong moths. In my imaginings I haven’t got much beyond plucking one off the wall, popping it into your mouth and justcrunching it up. Wrong.

First, build a fire on a flat rock then, when it is suitably hot, tip a netful of moths dipsy from smoke inhalation on to said rock stirring all the while until the wings and down are removed. Place in coolamon and winnow to remove dust and wing remnants. Pound remainder until a cake or lump is formed, ‘like unto dough made from smutty wheat mixed with fat. The bodies are large and filled with a yellowish oil resembling the taste of a sweet nut. The first time this diet is used by the native tribes violent vomiting and other debilitating effects are produced, but after a few days they become accustomed to its use and then fatten and thrive exceedingly upon it with such excellent results that aborigines assemble from all parts of the country to collect [the moths] from these mountains.’ The lump didn’t last a week without spoiling unless it was smoked in which case it would last quite some time.

For this information I am indebted to the notes of Robert Brough Smith, geologist and amateur anthropologist, who observed this happening in the mid-19th century.

Another visitor round that time as a member of Baron Von Mueller’s survey party was Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier. This painting, The Buffalo Ranges (1864), won first prize (£200, good money) in the very first acquisition competition held by the National Gallery of Victoria where it can still be seen.

Dd102997-1.jpgThis reproduction is a very ordinary rendering of a wonderful painting distinguished by the care and precision of its detail, brilliant control of depth and utterly reliable management of colour, none of which can really be discerned here but you get the idea.

The Argus said at the time: ‘There is an alpine chain, snowclad, dark, as belongs to the sublime and precipitous, and full of the grandest reminiscences of the old world. Clad with verdure to the line of almost eternal snow, it affords us a distinguishing feature in the varied beauties of Australia Felix. Mr. Chevalier has not before painted a better or more characteristic picture; the rich foreground surrounding the old water-wheel — especially the rock-work, with its fine lichen clothing — is a beautiful piece of painting. In the centre there is a grove, which displays in a very brilliant manner the effect of the sylvan sunlight peculiar to our clime. The mountains are almost verdure-clad to the top, and the scene as a whole, almost reminds one of Chamounix [sic]. A watercourse, most beautifully introduced, supplies a defect in Australian landscape; and life is given to the picture by the bullockteam in the foreground.’ (Quite incidentally, this review has as much to say about attitudes to mountains and being just barely ‘at home’ in the Australian landscape as it does about the picture.)

The hut is the home of a farmer, Albrecht Durer Watson (now there’s a name), and his wife Margaret at One Mile Creek let’s say oooh… about a mile out of Porepunkah. (‘Porepunkah’ is a Hindi word for ‘gentle breeze’. Thomas Buckland, the first selector of land in the area and whose cows were the first Europeans to find a way up onto the Buffalo plateau, had arrived from several years in Calcutta.)

The painting is of the view from the north, the approach, the easiest way — there is no easy way — of getting up on to the plateau. Just how accurate Chevalier has been can be gauged from this pic from the extravagantly fertile Buckland Valley behind the foothill that, from the north, usually gets in the way. IMG_2447.jpg

We were off to do The Big Walk — and yes that is its name, no correspondence will be entered into — which among other things includes zigzagging across the rock slabs on the right above. We can’t see its beginning but this is most of the route.Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 11.06.23 am.png

You start at the National Park entrance, the Eurobin Creek camp ground.IMG_2363.jpgOne way is about 12 km with a height gain of 1100m in 9km. We usually go up and come down again; appropriately, a Big Day.

The walk divides quite nicely into four parts fairly equal in length if not time. The first is the climb up to 7 Mile Spur. For 2km it varies between steep and very steep, puffing around slippery creek spurs.IMG_2370.jpgYou gain height quickly,IMG_2374.jpgbut it’s a stiff way to start the morning. When you get to the fire track along the spur it’s a relief that section is over.IMG_2380.jpgThen 600m to the road crossing at the hairpin bend. The trip by road to The Chalet is almost twice as far as the walk.IMG_2806.JPG

The second section is still up — it’s all up — but it begins by cantering along the eastern side of the ridge the road follows through Messmate, Yellow Gum, Sallee and Candlebark forest with the first views of the alps to the east.IMG_2385.jpgThat is Feathertop in full snow, the Razorback Ridge to Mt Hotham to its right. As you climb, these views just keep getting more expansive, better and better. You cross the road three more times and come out at Mackey’s Lookout.IMG_2392.jpgBy this time you’ve got to 960m asl, about 2/3 of the height gain, and you’re noticing it. It’s time for a cup of tea.IMG_2395.jpg

The third section begins here: a series of zig-zags across the rock slabs below the top of the face. IMG_2399.jpgIMG_3512.jpgBy my count, 31 corners 16 zigs and 15 zags, head out all the way, on a track that reminds me in places of the ‘road’ that the Austrians forced the Montenegrins to build so that they could haul their artillery up to the top of the cliffs above Kotor (at left).

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Prime walking.

There had been rain — and snow melt — so therefore a number of random streams, and one big one which isn’t this one, were spilling down the rock faces.IMG_2406.jpgAnd just as it looks, perfect weather. Marriott’s lookout. Who wouldn’t enjoy this?IMG_2413.jpg


IMG_2409.jpgThis rock signals the the fourth section — the last of zig-zags and a long traverse west through quite dense alpine ash forest before turning sharply left back some distance across the lip of the face and around the inset of The Gorge. The track got wet,IMG_2416.jpgthen a bit snowy,
IMG_2417.jpgthen quite snowy.IMG_2424.jpgThis area was fiercely burnt during the last bad summer fires (2009) and is now coming back. One of the hazards here was saplings, hundreds of them, bent in a U-shape like animal traps over the track, their upper foliage trapped in snow banks. No damage to the trees, but entailing a lot of ducking and weaving to get through them, not to mention regularly going plop up to your crotch in one of the many voids under the icy surface. 

IMG_2431.jpgWe got to the highest point (Bogong on the horizon above), still about 2 km from the Chalet. It would be one hour to get there through deep snow and one hour back to where we were, even before the hour back through the snow that we had already done. Four hours through snow, and we would be doing the final hour of the walk in the dark. So, sorry but no. Thwarted but not dismayed, we scuttled/ scurried/ stumbled (Myrna’s generous choice of terms for my gait) back to the car. What a walk. You could call it a Big Walk.

But we needed to see the Chalet. You always need to see the Chalet, if only to be reassured that Australia’s largest wooden building is still there. We went the next day. (And just look at that weather!)IMG_2462.jpg

From the first, Europeans found something seductive about Mt Buff. Look at them at the turn of the last century. (Just the two colours available for hand colouring.)Government Camp at Mount Buffalo.jpg

The mountain was clearly defined — not part of a range — and visible if not necessarily accessible in a way the more remote alps aren’t.

Everyone had his or her own reason for liking it, and for that reason the social history of Mount Buff is a microcosmic version of perhaps any social history.

DSC00562.jpgFrom his trip here in 1853 Baron Von Mueller added 78 previously uncategorised species (of the 480+ present on the mountain) to his plant collection. E.T. Dunn, who called the plateau ‘a garden of the gods’, thought it the most interesting place geologically in Victoria. Thomas Buckland (and many others) was pleased to use the plateau as a place to graze his cattle during summer. Henry Carlile thought it would be ideal for a hospice. Carlo Catani was interested in the technical problems of design and engineering associated with building and transport in an alpine environment (so comparatively rare in Australia). unknown-1.jpegHilda Samsing made a going concern and a living out of the need for hospitality as the number of visitors grew. Harold Clapp pursued his idea that the mountain would be the perfect destination for train travellers, Bert Keown and Ollie Polasek for skiers. Sir Russell Grimwade and Sir George Kerferd thought it might be an important place to preserve. Sir Rupert Clarke (and a long list of others) thought it would be a good place to develop and make some money out of.

‘Guide Alice’ Manfield (above, in her scandalous trousers) and her brother Jim just seem to have fallen deeply in love with it. 

A range of interests like this is never easily accommodated. The opportunities for conflict between conservationists and developers are obvious. But it might not be as clear that they emerged as soon as Bill Weston built a log cabin on the lip of the cliff face in 1879 for a group of Melbourne doctors who were enthusiastic bushwalkers. Was this the government’s business or a private concern? Should the upper reaches of the mountain be made accessible for anyone who was interested? Could the various aspects of the mountain be ‘monetised’? Fascinating how these issues are constant over time.

Gold had been found in the Buckland Valley and prospectors searched for a time among the granite tors of Buffalo’s plateau, but mercifully they were distracted shortly after by the finds at Beechworth.

In 1898 1166 acres of the current Park around Eurobin Falls was one of the first areas in Australia to be declared a ‘temporary natural reserve’. Another 9355 acres were added in 1945 to what was then formally declared a National Park. But this didn’t put an end to cattle grazing on the plateau, ruinous to the indigenous flora. It wasn’t until 1958 that, via at best a semiformal agreement, no more grazing licences were issued. You could confidently imagine the reason would be to conserve the plateau’s indigenous flora and fauna. That would have been a factor, but the most telling reason finally was that cow shit was making a mess of the golf course!

468090-small.jpgEarly in the 20th century a vituperative war broke out between two transport companies vying for the right to transport passengers up the hill: initially horse carriage vs. motor charabanc, later bus vs. bus. Under the strain of cutting prices, both went broke. (At left, bent Sir Tommy Bent, Premier of the day (1908) opens the road.) Then there were the backdoor means (‘It wasn’t even discussed’, complained Jim Neville the distressed previous licensee) by which Victorian Railways acquired the rights to the Chalet in 1924. 

A Cabinet Minute of 1914 describes Mt Buff as the ‘premier tourist resort in Victoria’: more transcendent than Lorne, more accessible than Wilson’s Promontory. People came, slowly at first, fashionably in the 20s and 30s, and then, when people had private cars and the road up the hill was sealed, in a rush. 

For just a look or for a fortnight, they were on their way to The Chalet.

Opened in 1910, the Chalet is the earliest surviving example of purpose-built tourist accommodation on an Australian snowfield, second only to the Kosciusko Hotel in New South Wales, which opened one year earlier but which was destroyed by fire in the early 1950s. Prior to the involvement of the Victorian Railways, the natural beauty of the area was of recognised tourist value and many dignitaries, including the Governor of Victoria, made the journey to experience its beauty and majesty or to indulge in winter and snow sports. It should be emphasised that it is not a hotel, but is a guest house, with the emphasis on shared and public, versus private, facilities. It is of the most significant heritage value to the state of Victoria. (Mt Buffalo Heritage Action Plan, Allom Lovell and Assocs for Parks Victoria. 2002.) And in fact it has National Trust Heritage Overlay.800px-Mount_Buffalo_Chalet.jpgAh The Chalet The Chalet. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

Our first holiday after our first daughter was born was a few days in Bright: a pig in a very cursory poke, unknown destination, just getting out of town. During that sojourn, one of the things we found — out of the blue so to speak — was Mount Buff and its chalet, and really you do have little choice but to go ooh ahh. Still. But that was 40 years ago when The Chalet was a going concern. It’s a smile now qualified.

Our kids learnt to play croquet on the front lawn, worked over the games room, swam in the pool, did the walks round Lake Catani. I think the last time we stayed as a family we might have had the Royal Suite, spec’d up for a visit that never came from the Duke and Duchess of Somewhere or Other. For dinner we would have had the soup which started every main meal and the roast which always followed in the semi-glittering dining room. We would have looked at or perhaps just walked past oblivious the displays of cups, medals and shields, pairs of skates, crossed skis, trophies of other competitions, other times, and poked our heads discretely round into the ballroom, barely noticing the bevelled mirrors and dark panelling, ambling around the endless corridors in which to get thoroughly lost. What a place. It had it all.Screen Shot 2019-09-13 at 4.56.05 pm.pngThe family at leisure in The Chalet’s piano lounge. At its peak the Chalet had a sauna, spa, gym, billiard room with four tables, games room, ballroom, dining room, café/ canteen/ gift shop, several lounges inc a smoking lounge and a TV lounge, drying room, tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, small oval for cricket, croquet lawn, and activities centre (ski and toboggan hire) along with accommodation for about 240 guests and perhaps 35 staff. 1288244961817.jpgBut until 1983, no bar. No licence, no bar. Which didn’t stop people bringing their own. Norman Banks was one of the people escorted off the mountain for alcohol-induced excessively rambunctious behaviour. 

images.jpegIt didn’t begin like that. At right is Henry Carlile’s hospice, a very early building at a site which, with its 650m sheer rock wall, was a magnet for many ambitions.

Building The Chalet proper was a major government decision. The first design was for a granite castle replete with crenellations, finials and a tower. Didn’t happen.

By 1910 a large wooden structure had been built. The exterior was weatherboard with no interior lining. The roof had been built, against all advice, of bitumen slates which tore as the green timber in the roof (just cut from the trees on the plateau) expanded and contracted, and so leaked as a matter of course. The builder, John Duncan McBride, had warned of all these issues. Before work began, he offered to correct them by adding just £500 to his initial tender of £3195, and today we would have had a granite building.

There was no electricity, just slightly spooky, in the sense of dangerous, gas lighting. No lighting at all in the bathrooms or toilets occasioning some difficulty. There was no heating except for fire places in the lounges. A regular of the day, Dr Wilkinson, recalled that, ‘…the only public room was the lounge which had sixteen doors. The present ballroom was the dining room then. Guests had to come to meals with rugs and overcoats on. They would then rush through their dinner in order to get back to the fire. The southern wing where there was no lounge was known as “Siberia”.’

Did this stop them coming? No it did not. During one weekend of the winter of 1921 it had 163 paying guests, three times as many as pictured here.mt_buffalo_chalet_01.jpg

It was run by Victorian Railways from 1924 till 1985. VR’s Chair, Harold Clapp (whose father had overseen the introduction of tramcars to Melbourne’s streets) had seen the success of luxury resorts run by railway companies at the ‘end of the line’ in the US and UK — St Andrews, Banff, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. He was sure he could make Mt Buff work for the resort, for the government and for his company. During that time for several decades staff wore VR uniforms, a train whistle blew for dinner held in what was officially designated the ‘Railways Refreshment Canteen’ where you arrived with your ticket for entrance. For some years there was also a curfew, because of the inherent lurking danger. 

images-3.jpegWho stayed at the Chalet? Well … in its day, the Who’s Who of Victoria: the Myers, the Brockhoffs, the Gadsdens, the MacRoberstons, the Grimwades, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the Victorian Cabinet, the Prime Minister, various Governors. The German Ambassador and his staff were regulars for a time. Guests were required to dress for dinner, men in dinner suits, women in evening gowns. The photos above in the piano lounge and below in the ballroom are neither fake nor staged. That’s how it was.

There is a story in Dan Webb (yes, Danny, that Dan) and Bob Adam’s wonderful book The Mount Buffalo Story 1898-1998  —from which I’m stealing copiously — about a gang of 280 workers on ‘the susso’ (sustenance living wage provided during the Great Depression for public works) nearly freezing to death living in tents in deep winter on the other end of the plateau building the road to The Horn while High Society danced its way through the evenings at The Chalet.ballroom.jpegThe evening hours, which are given over to music, song, dancing and other indoor amusements, must not be overlooked when packing for a holiday at The Chalet on Mount Buffalo, and a dinner frock or gown of the semi-evening order is necessary. It would be as well to include a costume suitable for a fancy-dress ball. Victorian Railways Magazine June 1924 illustrated with this photo.

In 1938 the Railways sought and received significant government funding for expansion and renovation of the building: another storey added to the front wing, two new major wings, some private bathrooms, carpet (!!), more effective internal lining, establishment of the ‘Royal Suite’ and so on.

After the Second World War The Chalet found a new clientele. Migrants and displaced persons from Europe, many of them Jewish, found a comforting reminder of their homelands in the mountain charms and old-fashioned service of The Chalet. Year after year families returned for their summer holidays, and ‘many courtships took place under the watchful eyes of parents and elders in the ballroom’. (It’s Dirty Dancing all over again.) 

In the 1970s VR believed that old age pensioners could be persuaded to fill spare capacity during traditionally quiet times of the year. Entitled to one free country rail journey each year, many began choosing Mount Buffalo Chalet as their destination. The occupancy rate soared to the extent that in 1979 plans were drawn up for the refurbishment of the kitchen and stores, a café and better staff accommodation.

The Victorian Tourist Commission ran it from 1986 until 1993 when, like a lot of other things in Victoria, this task was put out to private tender. Several companies tried their hand.

It was during that time that I had the distinction of booking the entire complex, 235 guests for a night and two days. It was part of an effort to encourage Bright, Myrtleford and Beechworth schools to work together. The food was great, the sessions were interesting. We had a band and the ballroom shook with memories of decades of pleasure and sociability. A great time was had by all. While there were some green shoots, it failed of course because I didn’t have anything much else to offer them but a great night at the best that Victoria could offer. Their local. 

And in 2007 The Chalet closed.images-4.jpegIn the 61 years VR had run The Chalet it had made an annual profit twice; in the last five years it cost the Government $2m. In the ’50s and ’60s the average occupancy rate was 70-75 percent which I would have thought was pretty good, but 85 percent was the break even point, and there was the conventional resort problem of feast (Christmas, Easter, school holidays) and famine (the rest). Staffing was always an issue because more than half had to live on the mountain and, until the 80s, staff accommodation and living conditions were quite primitive.

DbCiotBVAAA6TCd.jpgAnd then there was upkeep on a wooden building, never well built in the first place, in an alpine environment. The degree to which it decayed in the five years from 2007 to 2012 was hard to believe. One would peer in through the picture windows down the panelled walls to the ballroom and the still vaguely glamorous front lounges, past the rotted weatherboards, destroyed guttering, termites in the piers of the foundations, fire escape staircases falling off the building, galvanised iron roofing flapping.

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The big tor was still just past the cafe entrance. No one had bothered to shift it.

 

And the warning sign was still on the pool to make sure unruly and dangerous behaviour in the water was limited.IMG_2461 (1).jpgIMG_2460.jpg

In 2011 Parks Victoria developed a new plan which involved demolishing two-thirds of the building, new car park, day use centre including a cafe (which was to open in 2013; I’m waiting), fixed up gardens … that sort of thing. That would do me.

The front wing has now been restored to some degree. The foundations are right, the roof and cladding have been done up and that part has had a coat of paint. It looks okay.

But it needs noise inside it: chat, advice, plans, laughter, admonitions, toasts, speeches, stories of the day and of any day. Any day ever.  

But that might be it. Is it history, dead history now? The idea of the guest house, finished? While Woolies and the IGA and the Bright Brewery 1300m below are swarming with customers, don’t they want to come up the hill any more? Don’t they want to test the Buffalo’s magic to see if it’s still there? Do they even know that that’s on offer? Is it on social? Has it been Insta-ed?

Why did they used to come?

They wanted to look at The Leviathan.nma.img-ci20122933-027-wm-vs1_o3_640.jpg

Unknown.jpegThey wanted to climb, stand and sit on The Monolith.

(A passion appears for naming inanimate geographical features, especially rocks: Edinboro Castle, The Sarcophagus, The Piano, The Cathedral, the Monolith, Mahomet’s Tomb, Giant’s Causeway, The Leviathan, Whale Rock, The Sentinel, Og Gog and Magog and on and on. I’m calling it marketing.)

 

They wanted to sit or stand on any rock. (Pulpit Rock in this instance. Might be a man thing although there is one photo of Guide Alice lying down with half her body over the edge where the guy at the top is standing.)f9dc8faebcf71188c37a578933cdecc2.jpgThey wanted to throw snow at each other, and go tobogganingimages-1.jpegand skating on artificial Lake Catani, hectares of water a metre or two deep (which no longer freezes).images-2.jpeg

Maybe that’s over. Maybe the $86m plan for a new 99-room eco-lodge is the way to go. But maybe the punters won’t like that either. Maybe the charms of Mount Buff for the masses belong to another time, another culture. I’d hate to think so but it could be true. Not umm … interactive enough. Insufficient spectacle.DSC00533.jpg‘A Garden of the Gods’. Coming back from a walk to the South Wall, The Egg delicately balanced on the left horizon, The Hump in the background.

That same day we drove down the road towards The Horn, and a climb up The Cathedral and The Hump looked distinctly inviting. Basically up a snowy track for a couple of kilometres to each point with, as customary, the views getting better all the time, until from the top of The Hump the whole of the plateau is visible. 

Weren’t quite prepared. This is what the gentleman’s intrepid snow explorer wears these days. You can come straight from Collins St.IMG_3699.jpgWhereas the lady explorer’s today wear has gone a little more NorthFace. (At The Cathedral)IMG_2496.jpg

And then from the top of The Hump —IMG_3721.jpg

from The Cathedral to The Horn, about 5km as the crow flies, with long views to elsewhere.

You won’t run into cattle any more. The bush has swallowed the golf course utterly. The tennis courts can’t be far behind. The Oval is a lovely anachronism. A certain number of opportunities, defined by the season, remain to throw snow at each other. How much longer that will be true I can’t say.

On the flat to the right of The Cathedral where this video begins is the most important Aboriginal site on Mt Buffalo. It was a major burial ground, the most sacred of sites to the local Indigenous people, and perhaps that’s the right place to leave this excursion — a cycle perhaps, leaving this enthralling area to people who have a genuine handle to guide their appreciation of it. We’ve walked a lot here, across and around the top as well as up the front, and I can remember very few encounters with other walkers. Maybe it needs to be left for the sort of quiet meditation that walking engenders. Maybe.

 

KING and COUNTRY

[Trump] urges us all to shake loose the surly bonds of civilised conduct: to make science irrelevant and rationality optional, to render truth obsolete, to set power free to roam the world, to lift all the core conditions written into the social contract – fealty to reason, scepticism about instincts, aspirations to justice. We then, at last, will be restored to the primordial American state of nature – free to consume, to pillage, to destroy, to wall out our neighbours and to hate people for living in shitholes.

— Gary Greenberg: Analyse this: What Freud can teach us about Trumpism.

elvis-presley-documentary-the-king.jpg

I saw The King (aka ‘Promised Land’) at the last Melbourne Film Festival. I thought it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It had a lot of quirkiness built into its attempt to rope together scores of apparently disparate elements — images, words, music — thoroughly eclectic, ‘an onslaught’ one critic calls it, but so sweetly edited. 

Mid-film, the maker, Eugene Jarecki, sitting in a Phantom V Rolls-Royce which once belonged to Elvis turns to his road crew chief Wayne Gerstner who is driving and asks: ‘What do you think I’m doin’ with this movie now?’ Gerstner replies: ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doin’ with this movie … and I’m not sure you know what you’re doin’ either. That’s what’s scary.’ He mulls a moment. ‘Some sort of comparison of the rise and fall of Elvis with the rise and decline of America.’

Bang. Got it in one.

A foundation conceit is driving Elvis’s car, purchased for US$400,000, the single most expensive element of the production, through key places in Elvis’s life: Tupelo, Memphis, Hollywood, Las Vegas and populating these places with voices from his past and the present. In the rear passenger seat we have contributions from a dozen sets of musicians, ranging from Emi Sunshine, a 10 year-old shouter of high distinction who sings with her family band, to a group from the Stax Academy which is devoted to teaching black kids the magic arts of vocal entertainment. They sing ‘Chain of Fools’ mesmerisingly. John Hiatt begins weeping. ‘Sitting in this car and getting the sense, you know, just of how trapped he was. He was just a poor mama’s boy from Mississippi.’ He then plays and sings, ‘Wind don’t have to hurry’, a most affecting song.

A heap of people offer their commentary, among them Elvis’s best friend when he was young, a girl he went out with as a teenager, his hairdresser, his foremost biographer Pete Guralnick, and Chuck D (from rappers Public Enemy), Mike Myers, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Ashton Kutcher and Alec Baldwin all of whom illustrate their capacity for keen insight and unabashed self awareness. Ethan Hawke, who co-produced the film and seems to be something of an Elvis scholar, makes notable contributions.

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s chief strategist during the successful years, also appears. Early in the film we have a shot of Mike Tyson destroying an opponent with one punch over Carville saying: ‘They say Tyson hit you so hard he changed the way you taste. It’s the same with Elvis. America never tasted the same after he hit it.’ True, absolutely true, and one good reason why you’d make this film.

I loved it, but many of the pundits of the American media didn’t share my view. [I think it has only been released to film festivals. It has not run in Australian cinemas. You can get it with the customary effort from Google Play.]

He is interested in showing how Elvis represents the ‘American Dream’ and exemplifies the ‘American story,’ as part of a larger goal of showing how America went from Elvis to Trump. But the movie does so in painfully simplistic terms, with encyclopaedia-style snippets of history, authentically pained but insubstantial musings on “how we got here,” and an odd reliance on the comments of celebrities who lack any particular Presley connection, and who end up stifling the genuine insights of non-celebrity subjects who do. As a result, ‘The King’ isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is a part of the mediascape that it decries.  — Richard Brody New Yorker

Elvis Presley’s instrument, a voice so singular that it was recognized instantly all over the world, provides a haunting counterpoint to the ideas set forth in Eugene Jarecki’s “The King.” But this documentary feature is fascinating and infuriating in unequal parts, the latter far outweighing the former, since Mr. Jarecki’s instrument is a shoehorn. With an insistence that borders almost comically on obsession, he forces the singer’s life into a larger theory of national decline — the American Dream is dead, and Elvis is the emblem of its passing. — Joe Morgenstern Wall Street Journal 

The New York Times was kinder but not a great deal more insightful. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone phoned 500 words in from some far away place.

But it’s not the American Dream with which the film is concerned. It’s America itself. As I read it, during the course of the film Jarecki becomes aware that he is using Elvis’s story to talk about the trajectory, and impending end, of the American Empire. As James Carville says: ‘We are so fucked, you have no idea.’

* * * * * * * *

The-Faces-of-an-Young-Elvis-Presley.png

Elvis-Home-8.jpgElvis began his life as struggling white trash. Gladys kept things together. Vernon didn’t. Elvis was three when his father went to gaol for eight months for forging a cheque, part of a pattern. They lived in this two-room house in Tupelo that Vernon built before moving to one of three houses designated for whites in a Negro district of heavily segregated Memphis. America is just emerging from the Great Depression at this point.

Was he Latin? Part Black? Sioux? No. His mother was Scots-Irish with a distant hint of Norman French and his father, from whom he got at least as much of his looks, German-Scottish. That velvet sensuality just emerged from some magical genetic collusion.

You can infer the real colour of his hair from the photos above: auburn, copper, chestnut, even dirty blonde. He was the kid who built his teenage quiff from pomade and jet black shoe polish with a christening of rose water. He dyed his eyelashes till he died. He was the kid who, in his teens, carried his guitar around in its case at school, the one who other kids called a hillbilly, who was shy, who did okay at school except in music which he failed. That last might be too much: apocryphal. I’d rather it wasn’t true really. I can see all the rest: the sloe-eyed outsider with music in his veins, frequenting gospel halls and listening obsessively to Mississippi Slim on Radio WELO and other stations that played ‘race music’. At 12 he was invited by Slim (whose brother knew Elvis at school) to perform on air. The first time he was too shy; the second he quavered his way through a gospel song.

He spent some years failing auditions, often apparently on the basis that he was neither one thing nor the other, a genre shape-shifter. Almost certainly hoping to be noticed, he paid the Sun Studios to cut two songs for his own use: ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s when heartaches begin’. One of the studio’s minions made a note, ‘Good ballad singer. Hold.’ And hold they did. For 18 months. This was no overnight sensation. Overnight came later.

When the call finally came he spent the day in the studio singing ballads with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and it just wasn’t working. Sam Phillips, the boss, was looking for ‘a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel. I find one of those and I’ll make a billion dollars.’ At the end of the day’s recording, round 11 at night, the musicians were sick of it and started mucking round. Elvis began playing Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s all right‘. ‘Sam had the door to the control booth open … He stuck his head out and said, “What are you doing?” And we said, “We don’t know.” “Well, back up,” he said, “try to find a place to start, and do it again.”‘

Empires are founded on disruption of the established order. Disruption and, in time, transformation. Think of the American War of Independence, a lightning bolt into the heart of class-based societies everywhere. Or, more proximately, World War II ending with the US as the only cashed-up country in the world. That’s the clear beginning of the American Empire.

 But neither is that beginning an overnight sensation. It stands on the shoulders of 150 years of growth, development, influences and contributions, until a point is reached where it is not even a bit speculative to say: This is how it is now. We’re in charge. Not soft diplomacy, but a tidal wave of steely fact crashing down on your head. You don’t even bother telling people you’re the big dog. You just are. It has happened. It’s over. Think of the Romans in Gaul, the Ottomans in the Balkans, Saladin’s forces in Jerusalem. And, don’t let me distract you but, the Chinese today.

Elvis could croon, he liked ballads, he sang gospel, but at this stage of his career he chose to sing and play something else: rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock n roll — your choice of term. But it wasn’t like anyone else. It was a disruption. ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’, said John Lennon. Bob Dylan agreed. ‘Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.’

 

This is a force of nature at work. Too hot for Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry for example. They politely declined a second performance. And, if the alternative is Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, this is an earthquake; maybe why Frank, or someone ghosting for him, wrote in a trade magazine: ‘[rock and roll] is brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phoney and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. … This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.’

The FBI was sent a memo from a Catholic Archdiocese saying : ‘Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were [while performing] such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. … After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang [sic] into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.’

sullivan-136400246077602601.jpegThis is happening over 18 months. The ‘overnight-ness’ figures only after appearances on national television, firstly on the Milton Berle Show which accorded him his first number one hit, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and then, famously, on the Ed Sullivan Show (Ed at left with El) where it was suggested that to accommodate the impressionable sensibilities of American youth the star would only be shot from the waist up. Sullivan had suggested that Elvis had ‘got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants — so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!’ But the evidence makes it obvious that they shot the lot, Coke bottle or not. Strangely, on his third appearance on Ed Sullivan they did only shoot waist up. It is believed that Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, insisted. To help with publicity.

On one occasion early in his career he was forced to sing ‘Hound Dog’ on TV to a stationary and only semi-alarmed but keenly alert dachshund. But this is a young man at the peak of his powers. He could do any damned thing. Like Mehmed II entering Constantinople, he surged past those sorts of impediments without even noticing. He seems to have been most annoyed by being referred to as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’, but even then it was only ‘silly’, a vague irritation.

He didn’t even have to ‘move’, but he did. At 21, one year after his debut on television, he was one of the most famous people on earth. Sticking with our parallel, there are moments when empires simply take fire, indomitable. Resistance suddenly looks so terribly out of date.

In a discussion of cultural appropriation, the film provides clear evidence that the dance moves in ‘Hound Dog’ — parallel knee waggles, up on pointed toes, hip shakes — can be readily found in black performance of rhythm and blues. Identical. It quotes from Public Enemy’s rap ‘Fight the Power’: ‘Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain.’ Van Jones, a journalist and shaker in the Obama administration notes that we never found Elvis in the middle of a human rights march. And perhaps crucially that it was Big Momma Thornton who sang ‘Hound Dog’ first and some would say — not me — best. Where’s her credit line? Where’s her payday? But it’s Chuck D., the rapper who performs the Public Enemy lyrics above, who says: ‘Listen. The entire American experience is cultural appropriation.’ Hound Dog? A traditional African American field song? Not as such. Written in 1952 by two young New York Jews, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Empires hoover up everything: money, ideas, art, culture. Frankly, who cares where they come from? If you want to be where the action is, where the patronage is, where the stimulation is — the Medici’s Florence, Louis XIV’s France, Queen Victoria’s England, ’60s America — you will find endless threads of influence. In Elvis’s case you will find the manifold musical forms present in his environment growing up — bluegrass, hillbilly, gospel, the blues, rhythm and blues — in evidence right through his career. But he made something special out of his own version of them. And, frankly, frankly, anything else … go looking if you want to.

Then he was called up.

 

The song ‘G.I. Blues’ comes from the film G.I. Blues which isn’t made till after he left the service in 1960. I’ve included it here simply as a marker, although it’s not too bad, one of the shuffles that fill up his oeuvre, especially the film music: huggabuh huggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh. But let’s be clear, it’s not rock n roll; and the audience is nodding appreciatively and swaying rather than screaming and presenting their abdomen for signing. And just as a side note, you can also look at this, and all of Jailhouse Rock among other things, and wonder if his appeal is not primarily androgynous.

220px-Elvis_sworn_into_army_1958.jpgElvis, who even before going into the Army had signed a deal with Paramount for seven pictures, was being managed. Elvis could have largely continued his career just wearing a uniform, but it appears that he and the Colonel agreed, if for differing reasons, that he should be in so far as it was possible a ‘normal’ soldier. The Colonel didn’t mind. On two weeks leave, Elvis recorded a stache of songs which the Colonel released strategically to keep the legend alive while Elvis was serving , among them ‘Wear a Ring around Your Neck’, Hard Headed Woman’, ‘One Night’, ‘(Now and Then there’s) A Fool such as I’, and ‘A Big Hunk of Love’, all monster hits.

But apart from discovering the value of amphetamines prescribed to mask the tedium of guard duty, Elvis was ‘normalised’ (certainly when compared with Muhammed Ali when he faced the same issue). When he returned to civilian life he seemed to have been rehabilitated for and by the commentariat and the authorities. He’d ‘grown up’ and become ‘one of us’. As one of the contributors to the film notes: ‘He left this city as James Dean and he came back somewhat as John Wayne.’ (That happens to empires too, the civilising influences of maturity rubbing their more rabid edges off.)

As is well known, he spent most of his stint in the army at Bad Neuheim in Germany where he also met the 13 year-old Priscilla later to be his wife. Apart from three concerts in Canada in 1957 this is the only time that Elvis left the United States.

We could talk about insularity, the insularity and self-absorption which tends to mark one strand at least of imperial thinking and behaviour. But it is more likely that Elvis would have been perfectly willing to tour like artists with an international reach commonly do. In 1968 he said: ‘Before too long I’m going to make some personal appearance tours. I’ll probably start out here in this country and after that, play some concerts abroad, probably starting in Europe. I want to see some places I’ve never seen before.’

popexpresso-com-Elvis-Presley.jpgWhy didn’t he? Probably the Colonel (above at left), whose name was not ‘Tom Parker’ but Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, a Dutch citizen and an illegal immigrant to the US, a fact which would probably have been uncovered if he had left the country, and he wasn’t letting Elvis go anywhere on his own. Voila! Elvis’s own Dutch East India company, a parasite (the first manager to do a 50/50 split on all earnings) on the body host.

Brody-The-King.jpgBut like his country, Elvis loved guns. He admired the US military and in his own indirect way supported its growing presence around the world — at this time especially in south-east Asia, the war that Ali had railed against.

And then immediately on discharge there were the films.

The films. Ahhh the films. He had managed to break back into gaol.

Unknown-1.jpeg31 of them, made between 1956 and 1969, often three a year: not a recipe for cinema of the highest quality. And I don’t know whether you will instantly recall Spinout or Easy come, easy go, or even Stay away Joe, tagline: ‘Elvis goes West, the West goes wild. And that’s no Sitting Bull’. In that film Elvis plays an ‘Indian’, a Native American, for the second time. But unlike in Flaming Star, the other one, a tenable film in which Elvis’s acting plunges more than millimetre deep, his Cherokee character is a combination of all available stereotypes of dodgy Injun shiftlessness.

And this makes it distinctive because his characters are far more commonly outsiders who conquer. The American Dream achieved. He is commonly set up against shysters and smarmy double dealers who represent an out-of-reach and predatory class defined by wealth, institutional authority and/or age. 

Most commonly, always, there is a woman (women sometimes) at the center of the film who is/are the prize. Wild in the Country — in which ‘Elvis Presley sings songs of love to [separately, three for the standard price of one] Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins’ — is the only film where he is required to display much in the way of brain. A grizzled sage (versions of whom turn up with regularity) tells him, unaccountably, that he’s got a knack for writing.

These films, written by algorithm, are for kids (young teenage girls more precisely) and fans who are willing to abandon their adulthood. I was a kid once. The first time I took a girl out it was to go to ‘Blue Hawaii’. We watched this.

 

So resoundingly memorable that it was the featured item at the Travellin’ Winklers’ wedding, sung beautifully as it has been so many times since. What a song! An alluring arms-wide-open invitation to join in, and sinnnngg — ‘… some things were meant to be. Taaaaake myyyyyy hand …’ But a great song in a rubbish film. Check out the clumsiness of the cut at 0.40 and the staging which requires everyone (Joan Blackman is The Girl) to become statuary, grinning for 2.40. You might as well turn the picture off and just listen.

These films propose the hero as a bundle of unbuttoned and glamorous id driven by (fairly genial) instinct and emotion — loose, untamed.  But the dormant volcano erupts only at unfairness, wrong doing and infringements of the character’s freedom. He might have a motor bike but it won’t be black; he might have a leather jacket but it will not have a skull and crossbones on the back. He not will have tatts and, just as in real life, he will be disarmingly polite and honest.

Paradoxically the real hero is a very organised, highly sophisticated and coldly calculating commercial machine. Not all of Elvis’s films made money but the bulk of them did. The Colonel was making money. Everyone was making money.

When given a choice, well … as Ethan Hawke memorably puts it in the film: ‘Elvis at every turn picked money. “Should I stay at Sun records? Well, there’s more money at RCA, I’ll go to RCA. Should I take this big, giant movie contract, even though I don’t have any creative control? Well, it’s the biggest movie deal ever, let’s take it. Should I go on tour like I want to or should I take the biggest offer a live performer’s ever had in Vegas?”‘

But of course everyone was taking the money. That was what you did. As Mike Myers observes in the film: ‘You used to link the US automatically with democracy, but now it’s capitalism.’ The US had turned into the greatest money-making machine ever. Finance, technology, manufacturing, agriculture, resource development, entertainment all supported by brilliant logistical systems and augmented by a genuine respect for research and development: a package of unfathomable proportions, enough to flood the world with its goods and services. Frederick Taylor’s principles of ‘scientific management’ which had been so influential were being questioned and superseded by Peter Drucker’s more sophisticated insights (especially on the importance of intellectual work), but all the machinery was still in place. Order, direction, focus, discipline, data, careful marketing, strong supply chains, hierarchical management systems, well fed but tame unions — all underpinned by the motivation and confidence that success breeds along with loyalty to the underlying idea.

This is an empire in full stride, wonderfully confident of its own perspectives and direction. Even if it wasn’t always true, you could (and even more so, should) assume that next year would always be better than this, and that your children would grow up to be happier, or wealthier at least, than you were. Tight, orderly, the procedural rituals of cultural control were generally well understood and observed.

Organisation Man might have chafed from time to time at the nature and rewards from his work. (Organisation Woman was at home cooking, hanging out the clothes and looking after the next prodigious generation.) But at root he must have felt that what was good for General Motors was good for the USA. Had anyone ever had it so good? Suck it up and get on with it. In Elvis’s case, 31 times.

However, you might note the bookend years for these films: 1956 and 1969. Between them, an earthquake in popular youth culture was taking place which Elvis may well have had a hand in starting but the Beatles were its most visible form. The story goes that in the early film years the Colonel used to put Elvis under a blanket so the car could get past the massed girls when he wanted to leave the studio. He was still doing it in 1969, but it was to hide the fact that there were no girls. The soundtrack for ‘Speedway’ released in late 1986 reached No.98 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Ignoring any of that, the films were making Elvis sick: in mind, body and soul; and he finally said no, or at least, let me do something else, something I want to do. (What were the children of the empire saying? Much the same thing.)

The 1968 TV concert ‘Elvis’ was the comeback. The Colonel wanted an hour of Christmas songs. Elvis and the show’s director Steve Binder dodged that marshmallow bullet. Jon Landau, who knows about these things, wrote: ‘There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock ‘n’ roll singers. He moved his body [clad at times in skin tight black leather] with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.’

It had it all. I remember it. I thought I’d turn on the TV to watch this old tart to see what he had and could only agree with John Robertson: ‘He conjured up the vision of a performer who could be all things: a flirtatious teenage idol with a heart of gold; a tempestuous, dangerous lover; a gutbucket blues singer; a sophisticated nightclub entertainer; a raucous rocker.’

 

And NOTHING was better than the big finish, ‘If I Can Dream’. Play it again. Play it as often you like, and see if it doesn’t affect you each time.

He’s got a catalogue of these anthems — How great thou art, The Impossible Dream, Lord this time you gave me a mountain, My Way, I just can’t help believing, The wonder of you, You’ll never walk alone — huge vocals over towering feats of orchestration. Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, eat your hearts out. But this might be the pinnacle. It’s a better song.

Here’s a story about it.

America was in the midst of an upheaval in 1968. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and our world and culture were changing. Within a short span of time, two leaders were assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis – Elvis’ hometown. Robert Kennedy, a US Senator who strongly supported human rights and social justice, was killed two months later, on June 6.

In the spring of ’68, Elvis was working on his upcoming TV special, ‘Elvis’. After seeing the news about Kennedy’s death on TV, Elvis spent a night with the show’s director, Steve Binder, and his friends, talking about the assassinations. The conversation was heartfelt and honest, and Binder went to the show’s Musical Director Billy Goldenberg and songwriter Earl Brown and asked them for a powerful, meaningful song that would close out the show. Because the special was slated to air in December, the producers and Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, had planned to end the show with a Christmas song, but Binder had other ideas. 

On June 23, 1968, Elvis recorded ‘If I Can Dream’ in several impassioned takes, even though it is said that the first take Elvis gave was perfect. The King gave such a powerful performance that some band members were taken aback, so blown away by Elvis’ performance that they had to do several retakes to improve their own performances.

But it was after the band and backup singers were sent home that Elvis gave an even more astonishing performance as he re-recorded the vocals. He had the lights turned off and fell to his knees on the concrete floor, giving himself completely to the song. After those takes, Elvis went to the control room and had his chosen take played repeatedly before he gave it his blessing. He told Binder, ‘I’ll never sing another song I don’t believe in’.

That’s a story. An innocent story really. But lurking in the background, regardless of Elvis on his knees singing, we have the highest quality made-to-measure sentiment manufactured more or less overnight. Power, resources, capability all thrown at it, from the lonely trumpet opening to the tinkling glockenspiel and the powerhouse synthesized organ; from the massed backup choir to the final anguished plea, even to the humble ‘Thank you. Good night’ to a silent (stunned? respectful?) audience. These people know how to put on a show. They are the best. The entertainment industry had long overtaken agriculture as America’s international trade staple.

All empires need a sustaining myth. It may be that the American empire was the first to make it secular. We’re trapped in a world/ That’s troubled with pain/ But as long as a man/ Has the strength to dream/ He can redeem his soul and fly. The American Dream: If I want it enough, I can have anything I want, I can be anything I want. Riiiiiight Now! A declarative flag pointing the way on a buoy floating in the sea of optimism that sometimes startles and surprises visitors to the US.

It’s also about individualism. It’s the ‘man’ (sorry women, these days you do too) who has the strength to dream, to redeem his soul and fly. Whereas if we sing (just as emotionally) Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set/ God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet, the ‘thee’ is plural — ‘us’, ‘the nation’, ‘the empire’.

And so when The Individual (say the President maybe …?), the one we’re counting on, the one in the spotlight, betrays their weakness …

 

… the nation shivers.

This clip is one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. It was recorded in Rapid City, South Dakota, two weeks before he died. (South Dakota! How are the mighty fallen …) In the film we don’t see the bumbling first minute available here. The rest is used to run under the end credits, along with clips, among other things, of Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky, the initial bombing of Baghdad in the Iraqi War, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, OJ Simpson gesturing with the too small gloves, a crowd at a pre-Presidential Trump rally chanting ‘Build the wall’.

Wheezing, sniffing, sweating, unfocused, pasty, scarcely intelligible as he mumbles and mixes up words and yes, fat. Still self-aware enough to laugh at this version of himself, to ask the audience, ‘How’re you like it so far?’ And then he starts playing, and glory be, that voice! Some atavistic memory kicks in which allows him to hit the right keys, hammering them, maybe with a bit of incipient madness, enough at least to make you look through Contacts for the doctor’s number. The thick satin voice hits all the notes, or near enough. He can still drive to the top of the crescendo without slipping backwards, although it’s someone else’s voice who finishes it off for him. The vibrato is still there along with the bel canto embroidery. He can still do it. Somehow. Christ knows.

I am transfixed by this performance. Spellbound. It is perhaps, against all possibilities, commanding, but hanging all the way off the question: is he going to make it? Can this very sick man do this? And a second order question — who let him get this way?

He seems to have died straining at stool as they used to say, trying to resolve chronic and extreme constipation brought on by the opioids in his system. Initially it was claimed that the cause of death was cardiac arrythmia, something I’ve enjoyed myself. Further investigation found 14 different types of prescription drugs in his system, ‘ten in significant quantity’. His doctor George Nichopoulos was exonerated of criminal liability for the death. However, ‘in the first eight months of 1977 alone, he had [prescribed] more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics in Elvis’ name.’ His license was suspended for three months.

As it happens, prescription drug overdoses killed more than 79,000 people in the US last year, an increase of about 15% from the year before. A majority of the deaths  — just over 49,000 — was caused by opioids. Not gun violence, not car crashes nor AIDS have ever killed as many people in the US in a single year. 

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Since Elvis died in 1977 the gulf between America’s super-wealthy and its struggling masses has grown dramatically. Graceland is a small suburban cottage compared with modern executive mansions. At the height of his fame, Elvis earned $1.2m in a year; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos makes more than that every hour. In 2017 the 350 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than half of all Americans combined. More than 70 percent of that wealth wasn’t made ab initio but built on inheritance. That doesn’t have the makings of aristocracy; it is aristocracy, dynastic plutocratic aristocracy. And that has all the makings of dissension and the splitting of the body politic that we seem to be witnessing.

An article in the ‘Washington Post’ (10/6/19) states that one in three American 18 to 34 year-old men are unemployed and at or near the poverty line, the new ‘lost boys’ and perfect fodder for all sorts of nuttiness including the mass of ‘incels’, involuntary celibates, yes those, the ones that spend their lives trying to make women’s lives hell.

I’d like to throw in a personal KPI that I adhere to, and often use, as in: ‘You don’t trust science? Do you ever drive over a bridge?’ There are 612,677 bridges in the US. In 2018 59,387 were, according to the Federal Highway Administration, ‘structurally deficient’ with at least one key structural element in poor condition. 

You can only make suggestive generalisations about something as gigantic as an empire, but without even mentioning misadventures on foreign affairs or decline in manufacturing or R&D or technological leadership, those sorts of things are pointers to decline.

Trump’s Presidency fits this state of affairs like a finger inserted into something that a finger fits really well. (When you clicked on the clip above did you see Trump? Whispering incoherently and gesturing oddly? I started doing this and now can’t stop.) He is governing on personal whim and bullshit.

Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 philosophical study On Bullshit: “[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Viewed thus, Trump — and his mates — are the personification of bullshit. And that’s the danger for all of us. That and his hopeless narcissism and insularity, his short-sightedness and selfishness.

We are watching a formidable attack on Enlightenment values (see the epigraph far above), those strange but important attachments we have tenuously made to civilised human social behaviour. Rush Limbaugh, a radio host/commentator who currently has a weekly audience of around 13.25 million unique listeners, has described journalism, law, the academy and science as ‘The Four Corners of Deceit’. Not every American listens to Rush Limbaugh and not every American listening to Rush Limbaugh believes that, but how is it that that can even find a place in public discourse and influential public discourse at that? These are fragile entities so easily destroyed, and generally by narcissism and insularity, short-sightedness and selfishness.

Can this be the country that gave us the Marshall Plan, the most civilised response to catastrophe there has ever been, the country that gave us the League of Nations, UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, service clubs, the Peace Corps, the country that made it a principle that corruption should be rooted out and never allowed to flourish (not least because of the way in which it stuffs up commerce)? And, on the surface at least, the idea that rational process was something to be pursued assiduously and relentlessly?

Empires don’t collapse over night. It took The Holy Roman Empire 500 years to slide completely off the shelf. The Ottomans were alive as long as Albania was paying tribute (1922), but that was centuries after everyone else had stopped caring. Brexit could be considered to some degree as a shout from the grave from the vestigial remnants of an Imperial British past. You can walk, albeit carefully, around the streets of London or through the home counties and still comfortably imagine a time when the sun did not set on the red bits of the map. It’s still there: it’s just that everything else has changed.

Is the US still a GREAT Country? Of course it is. Obama and Hilary were right, not Trump. The GDP is, if not burgeoning, just fine at present; the Dow Jones Industrial Index is healthy; the military might is still intact and shored up by inconceivable amounts of annual funding. India and China might be catching up, but Silicon Valley is the cutting edge of digital progress. New York and LA are still the ultimate destinations for people who want to develop and show off their talent. There are scores of millions of civilised thoughtful people among its population who are concerned about the daily maintenance of Enlightenment values.

It is a great country, a massively great country. But maybe it might not be the GREATEST country any more: a big dog sure, but not the biggest dog in the yard. Maybe there’s another big, and hungry (and hugely energetic, and disciplined) dog unfettered by ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ in the yard which might be pinching the food. (What the …! Bolto, get the gun.)

The US is a great country, a massively great country. But apparently it can be thrown off course by a few thousand illegal migrants entering by foot from the south, those drug-addled gangsters that pick the fruit and tend the houses, pools and gardens of rich Californians. And if so, I’m sorry to say, that’s not a great country.

When they begin failing, empires thrash about, still trying to assert themselves and confirm notions, their own and those of spectators, of their unassailable power. A perceived change in social (domestic, local, national) circumstances, especially a weakening of position, produces uncertainty and insecurity and a desperation to defend what is already no longer the status quo. We might see this realised soon in Iran. I hope not.

Now, especially, in this connected and accessible world, the scale of such changes is tectonic with the capacity to engender that insecurity and uncertainty on a world-wide basis. Everywhere. Like in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Italy and all those other places where the Hard Man has suddenly sprung up for reasons that are hard to pin down. Is it in the hope that such people will provide protection from those inexplicable but troubling tectonic rumblings?

Jarecki says: ‘I found myself saying, “It’s like we all woke up one day and discovered we were Fat Elvis. We had been young and beautiful once, but now we were addicted to all manner of quick fixes – consumption, carbohydrates, drugs, vanity, violence. Elvis did all of that, and look where it got him.”‘

Maybe we have both been wrong to drag Elvis into it. Where did it get him? His output still earns well … money at least. US$40million last year, not to be compared with Michael Jackson’s $400m but that was a special case. El came in Number Two. Appreciation? I read a news story today that said if you were younger than 35 it was very unlikely you would have ever knowingly heard an Elvis track. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! The remnants of the empire turn out to be impersonators, almost always from the Fat years, who are allowed to congregate in Parkes (smaller than Geelong and more rural) once a year.

Even after all that, you have no control of what is left. Destiny rolls on, even in that nation which built its identity first and foremost on being a republic — and where Elvis was The King.

Addenda

• I have strayed a fair way from the film to follow my own route to thinking about these issues. Jarecki’s take is much more elegant and diffuse, partly because as I have said already I think he was changing his mind about the precise meaning of what he was looking at during the making of the film. That might be what the critics are complaining about.

But he may well have also been being cautious about his audience and their sensibilities. I’ve done far more shoehorning here than Jarecki allowed himself. He gives you a pretty free go to think what you like. But I’m not an American. I suspect that it could well be important for the citizens, including the articulate, smart and liberal citizens, any citizens, of the dominant country in the world to consciously or unconsciously repress ideas about a decline to Number Two or worse. But Trumpsters chanting ‘Lock up Hilary’… what are they shouting but: ‘We’re going down the gurgler and I’m really worried about it. Give me a bigger gun. I want to shoot some Venezuelans. Someone. Anyone. That’ll make me feel better.’

An honest effort to think hard about what’s going on is not something I would usually complain about. Particularly when the material, and the dialogue of the art, could be so rich. I think the critics might have had trouble with the nature of the chosen medium of expression (chasing an interesting parallel and looking out for where the bits knock together, and of course parallel things don’t knock together but you know what I mean). They might have been disappointed in the lack of stiffness in the connections in what is being proposed (and what I am proposing about the nature of empires, most seriously if it matters). But it’s not an allegory. It’s not even an extended metaphor. Not everything Elvis did is reflected in the trajectory of the American Empire (or even the American Dream as they keep misplacing it), or vice versa.

It’s just adventurous (and artistic) play which might pay off or not. You hope there’s an audience for that.

• Big thanks to Russ Maddock for helping me get the clips off YouTube.

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• In 2012 the spider Paradonea presleyi was named in Elvis’s honor. That’s surely something.

Three good books on Post-Truth-ism

The Jewel in the Crown

IMG_2216.jpgEntry to the throne room can be from The [Latrobe] Valley of course, and there is nothing especially wrong with that, not per se.

However, this study in pastel is Loy Yang A Power Plant, operated by Alinta Energy and owned now by Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Fook Enterprises. It is the successor to Hazelwood, the ‘dirtiest’ power station not just in Australia but in the OECD. That includes any in Poland (joined 1996) where the emissions in the urban winter air can make your teeth grind. THE Least Efficient Power Station: 1.58 tonnes of CO2 emitted for every megawatt of electricity produced via burning (comparatively) wet brown coal. Emitting 18 million tonnes of CO2 annually, not to mention 1000 tonnes of boron, 77,000 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 27,000 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, 29,000 tonnes of other particulate matter including highly poisonous polychlorinated dioxins — all into the air.

Air borne pollution from the normal operations of each of the Valley’s three remaining coal-fired plants probably kills around 60 people a year in Gippsland, and makes many more sick.

That’s the bad news. Clearly.

HERO-01_Matthew-Gardiner_Experimenta_Photo-NickyPastore_6453.jpgBeyond that I need to say that in The Valley’s Regional Gallery in Morwell we found a most intriguing collection of quasi-art, its International Triennial of Media Art. Something so special it stopped us for a hour longer than we had imagined it might. The Folded Geometry of the Universe at left, 3D and about 400mm long in reality, and formidably elegant. (Folded by Michael Gardiner in 2016.)

We were on our way to Tarra Bulga National Park, 40km south of Traralgon, to find the Tarra Valley Loop, a 25km walk.

The Park is a standing monument to South Gippsland as it once was. Not the manicured green bottoms full of rich red and black soils, upturned to accept the metre plus annual rainfall with tidy caterpillars of cyprus climbing over them …IMG_2609.jpgnor even the less immaculate and more typical mix of things:IMG_2732.jpga herd of cows in the distance, a crease jammed full of exotic weeds, on the hill in the background a recently felled plantation (E. nitens, Shining Gums, which in the right circumstances, viz. right here right now, will grow three metres a year), a fringe left to both frame and moderate the horizon line. But in a region afflicted with drought, the lowest rainfall ever recorded for the first four months of a year, undeniably verdant pasture.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1840 Paul Strzelecki, a Pole after whom the area is named (so, Brian Taylor, let’s say it as it is: Sh-trz-let-ski) fought his way through the natural forest somehow. ‘Nearly impenetrable scrub interwoven with grasses and giant trees both upright and fallen and scattered in confusion’, he claimed. His party ate koalas and wombats to keep themselves alive until they somehow found their way to the marshy shores of Westernport Bay.

The trees were giants. One felled at Thorpedale was measured on the ground at 114 metres (375 feet). The biggest were ‘ringbarked’ by cutting a continuous notch an axe-head deep around the trunk thus stopping the transport of nutrients from the leaves to the roots through the phloem and cambium layers, resulting in a lingering but assured death. In his wonderful book The Bush, Don Watson who grew up here quotes a squatter writing: ‘After dinner I went with Jim to ring trees on Daves block I could ring an acre in 2 1/2 hours and Jim could take out the saplings in 2.’ Don comments: ‘ Eight hundred hours (320 acres by 2.5 hours) and a few days burning in summer putting paid to several million years of growth.’ A bit strong, but that’s the direction of travel.

IMG_2603.jpgAt the southern end of the Tarra Valley the ‘shack in the bush’ of past history is still in evidence. 

I didn’t know what we were going to apart from a long walk just to see if we could, and the Tarra Bulga Guesthouse at Balook where I’d booked accommodation.IMG_2219.jpgOur hosts Nina and Peter had cooked and served 220 meals the previous day, a Saturday lunch, so it wasn’t completely unknown to the world at large. The number of fancy houses on their 10 acres along the Traralgon-Balook Road also said we weren’t in the middle of nowhere, although the sensational view from Mt Tassie rather suggested otherwise.IMG_2217.jpg

When we left the next morning it was raining softly but steadily — this year an unfamiliar and delightful experience.img_2220-1.jpg

 

 

 

This walk has been carefully tailored by volunteers from the Grand Strzelecki Track Group to make the most of areas which are least changed by human intervention. But the length of the walk means that almost the first half lies outside the boundaries of the National Park.

But it still begins among big trees IMG_2671 (1).jpgand heaving tangles of forest.IMG_2225.jpgThere are several sites of old homestead clearingsIMG_2231.jpgand for some distance the impact of the Black Saturday fires (7 Feb, 2009) is evident. The new stands of Mountain Ash saplings are about 25-30m high — three metres a year that would make the rate of growth — but there was also this unusual forest of acacias, straight, jammed together and, perhaps as a consequence, very very tall.IMG_2692.jpgSome kilometres of plantations followed, all Nitens like these, with their typical cascades of bark.IMG_2244.jpgAfter a fierce, concentrated and slippery climb up Duncan’s Track there is a section on the contour through lovely forest and fern trees, Butler’s Track (below). Great walking through little known history.IMG_2238.jpg

IMG_2243.jpgIMG_2722.jpgRain forests have fungi, especially if it has been warm, and Tarra Bulga was no exception. Wonderful things appeared, some with caps 350-400mms across, monsters, although these were more to be filed under Beautiful.IMG_2720.jpg

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You cross the modest trickle that is the Tarra River through massive trees, and a dense understory with all manner of vegetation and moving creatures, lyre birds, wombats, black and swamp wallabies, kangas. The walk, 4 or 5km through and above the valley to a view of the far away coastline, is simply splendid, and then it’s a long slow climb mostly through protected forest back to Balook.

* * * * * * *

If patches of South Gippsland are memories of what the crown might have been — and on this experience they really are — what’s the jewel in this diadem?

From where we were you need to drive past the building below to get there. The old Yarram Courthouse built in in 1907, now an information centre and art gallery. The Victorian Heritage Register says: ‘unusual massing and roof form, displays considerable creative and technical achievement’. Indeed, but what’s the word for it? Stylish. Let’s go with stylish. Stylish in a way that might not, would not, occur today. Much appreciated. Thank you.IMG_2608.jpg

And you get here, a backwards tick.wilsonsprom_ast_2009073_lrg.jpgA NASA image of Wilson’s Promontory taken during the fires of 2009 during which about one-third of the Park, the brown areas, was burnt. This particular image has been included not because of the fires, but because it provides an establishing shot, an outline of The Prom. You can even see the northern boundary of the National Park across the Yanakie isthmus from Shallow Inlet. And because it’s striking.

People tend to take the same pics at The Prom.

Here’s a standard: waves gliding in at Norman Bay and Squeaky Beach from Mt Oberon at sunset.IMG_2614 (1).jpgHere’s another: Tidal River looking up stream. Quite Japanese-y in the particulation, variety and harmony of its features: rock, wood and water.IMG_2834.jpgAnd another: the classic granite tors and orange lichen, in this case at Tongue Point.IMG_2145.jpgI’d like to say these photos and better versions of them do the place justice. But they don’t.

The Prom, people respond, a slightly wistful quality filtering into their voice. Mmm yes, The Prom. I know what you mean. Have you …? Of course. Yes. Of course we’ve been to The Prom. We used to go there … And an underlying note of knowingness, complicity in understanding what is implied, appears.

What is it we know? Because The Prom is indeed the jewel in the crown of South Gippsland. But why? What is it about The Prom that makes the shout ‘Hands Off’ so near unanimous? It’s something more practical than adoration, but these 505 square kilometres of ‘nature’ are special, catching and holding very tightly.

8ed803b4da29949e65e3e4250f5531ce--australia-trip-melbourne-australia.jpgIt might be that the 30 kilometre drive from the park entrance to Tidal River is like an overture at the opera helping you to slow down and start looking, listening, tuning in, becoming more alert and sensitive to what will come. During that time you will have driven through six markedly different vegetation zones, some of them repeating, but each of them with their own diverting features.

It might be the fact that on that drive you will probably have already seen scores of emus, kangaroos and wallabies in the wild. Or it could be the greeting in the car park from the case-hardened wombats.

And The Prom’s delights are not hidden. The entry provides glimpses of its perfect beaches and its colours of aqua water with crisp white collars, the unusual grey-cream and sparkle of the granite tors, the violent orange of the lichen and the endless range of greens in the vegetation.

This time the flowers were out at Tongue Point. It was a garden; overplanted, but a garden. I hadn’t seen it quite like this before. But you must assume that, even though Tongue Point is not one of the popular walks, hundreds of thousands have. This is a pleasure widely shared.IMG_2894.jpg

 

At The Prom you walk. Telegraph Saddle to Sealer’s Cove and back is a classic Australian day walk. It’s an oddity in that it runs in an almost straight line west-east and yet it’s got it all.

IMG_2259 (1).jpgAfter a drive up to Telegraph Saddle you start reasonably high and walk along an undulating track through eucalyptus forest dryer than on the other side of the saddle.

A while ago now, floods caused sometimes huge landslips, in a dozen or so places destroying the track.

Parks Victoria has warmly thanked itself for its tireless efforts to renew the track at each of these sites.IMG_2322.jpgAnd they have, and its great, and no doubt they were tireless and in several spots brilliantly ingenious to be able to rebuild the track. Really. Salutations Parks Victoria.

Three kilometres to Windy Saddle where on this day the sun was out and bouncing off the surface of this perch at its highest point. The Prom is natural but ordered. A lot of people use it, the parts you are encouraged to use anyway, and they are well catered for.IMG_2262.jpgThen there’s the wonderful rolling descent through the wet side, downhill apart from a dip down into and up out of the creek valley at Ferny Glade.IMG_2268.jpgAnd then, with about 2kms to go to the Cove, you come to the swamp and the duckboard which will take you through it, IMG_2276.jpgoften suspended above the froggy, mossy waters of Blackfish Creek, IMG_2319.jpgwhich, surrounded by melaleuca, opens out onto something more like a real creek very close to the beach.IMG_2317.jpgThen you suddenly plunge out onto the Cove itselfIMG_2280.jpgwhich, after an hour or two of enclosure, offers a massive inhalation of space.

With its suggestions of symmetry and its pure creamy sand, the beach is glorious. Stubs of a handful of old wharf piles blackened by the weather are a reminder that there have been timber gatherers here. In fact in 1854 Sealers’ Cove had a steady population of more than 60 (six women at the time). Those stubs are the end of a tramway of which there is now otherwise very little evidence.

The beach has been returned to its original inhabitants. Gannets, shearwaters, shags, sometimes an albatross and almost always muscular assertive Pacific Gulls, half as big again as ‘normal’ gulls and with blood red tips to their beaks.IMG_2285.jpgI went looking for the name of the tiny crabs that were everywhere, (I have just realised they are the dark dots behind the gull in the pic above) and failed. [Later: mictyris longicarpus, the Light-Blue Soldier Crab. Mr B. ‘Smartypants’ Findlay.] But I did discover that near the low-water mark the gastropods Dicathais orbita and Turbo undulatus, chitons of the genus Plaxiphora spp. and the limpet Patella peroni are common. Who knew? And who knows what these actually are. 

I also found a list of fish common to its waters which deserve recording simply for their names: the large bastard trumpeter, old wives, magpie perch, wrasse Notolabrus, southern hulafish, vicious sweep, the toothbrush leatherjacket, herring cale, Odax cyanomelas and mado. Wouldn’t they all have a good time together, just simply introducing themselves. Hi … I didn’t quite catch your name?

IMG_2772.jpgReturning to the crabs, they are about as big as your fingernail and toddle across the intertidal area in their thousands. But they are there one minute and gone the next. At a sign of danger, it takes them perhaps three seconds to bury themselves completely, although they do leave behind  distinctive little balled mounds. IMG_2316.jpgThey dig lying on their sides. Swivelling all the while, the bottom four legs chew out the sand; the top four ball it and pass it out onto the beach. It is a process which is something to behold.

Like the rest of The Prom, just under the surface is all manner of life,IMG_2315 (1).jpgalthough not as much there once was.

In a single year (1804) an American ship took more than 600,000 seal skins from this area. The slaughter this entails is implied. Today in all the waters of southern Australia there would not be 600,000 seals. The timber getters lasted six years at Sealers’ Cove. They had exhausted the growth worth cutting. You’d think this might be a lesson in the zero-sum resource exploitation game. But at the time it must have seemed as though there would always be ‘plenty’ with both a small ‘p’ and a large. Interest transferred to stripping South Gippsland.

In essence the history of Wilson’s Promontory is one of thousands of years of exposure to nature’s furies — with the Koories [local Aboriginal peoples, mainly Brataualang and Gunai/ Kurnai] living in parallel with these forces — broken by a brief interlude of a century of exploitative use by Europeans, before returning to the domination of nature, says Geoff Wescott in his handbook to understanding The Prom (1995: 27).

In 1908 James Barrett wrote about the state of The Prom in The Argus: The Park is let on a grazing lease by the Government. It has just been burnt thoroughly from end to end. The fine timber at Sealers’ Cove has gone, and doubtless most of the native bears and other animals have gone with it. The scrub has gone. The Promonotory now presents a piebald appearance — green patches alternating with patches of blackened sand and bare charred timber … Either the national park is a park or a cattle run, it cannot be both. An end must be put to this ruinous vandalism.

It had been declared ‘a temporary reservation for a National Park’ in 1898, one of the first in the world, actually the second after Yellowstone which wasn’t called a National Park in its legislation. Despite this, grazing was not completely outlawed in its northern sections until 1992. Despite this, it is now a successful case of intelligent human intervention in the cause of natural preservation.

‘Natural’? What’s that?

‘Natural’ a very short time ago geologically meant The Prom was a chain of islands, even more recently a part of a land bridge with Tasmania used by Indigenous peoples. ‘Natural’? In some parts it is criss-crossed by tracks and roads. Tidal River has shops, cabins, camp sites, generators, fresh water and sewerage systems — without which it would be much harder to visit, and maintain. If it was just left, now, Coastal Tea-tree would probably create a vegetal mono-culture in its northern regions; introduced plants would thrive; foxes and other introduced predators would compete with and deplete native species. Uncontrolled fires, which appear to have become more frequent, would change and limit the range of plant species.

So. Intervention. Management. Control. Change. Providing great things but herding people into certain parts of the Park where their impact can be contained and limited, all the while educating them about appropriate behaviour. Fencing off the hoon tracks on Mt Oberon so they’re no longer used. Patrolling and servicing the more remote camp sites. This is why there are ballots for the 442 camp sites at peak periods. This is why there is not an 18-storey resort hotel.

These are not simple matters. But a balance seems to have been struck at The Prom that is both popular and successful, respectful of human interest and contact while at the same time ensuring that the exquisite natural environment is maintained.

And that’s why I think The Prom is the jewel in the crown. Because it’s an example of intelligent and diligent resource management, living proof that it can be done and done well. Salutations indeed Parks Victoria.

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30 Gloucester Street

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Reservoir (‘Rezzavor’ or just ‘Rezza’, but never ‘Reservwa, puzzling to a Francophone) was built on the very edge of the city in the 1950s: a suburb of workingman’s houses. I say ‘man’s’, because women had been sent home from their war time jobs and generally speaking only a man could ‘own’ a house.

Rezza houses were built quick and cheap using indigenous materials and construction methods. No masonry, no deep footings, no slate roofs, no foot thick walls. As elsewhere in the nation Australian light timber framing was the go here. Stud walls made out of green eucalyptus hardwood on stumps dug into soil which moved, and moves, with the seasons.

Cheaper houses were clad with ‘fibro’ which, after the people who made it — that is actually made it, not the ones in the office — kept dying on us, turned out to have a very high content of crocidolite or blue asbestos.

It came in handy sheets, was great to paint, and was highly stable even if the rough use that might come from backyard cricket or kicking the footy would knock the corners off. But if you were cutting it, the asbestos would come loose and you could be breathing in mesotheliomic air.

Some advice from the Bureau of Premise Inspections: Important! If you suspect you have asbestos in your home, Don’t cut it! Don’t drill it! Don’t drop it! Don’t sand it! Don’t saw it! Don’t scrape it! Don’t scrub it! Don’t dismantle it! Don’t tip it! Don’t waterblast it! Don’t demolish it! And whatever you do… Don’t dump it!

‘Better’ houses had weatherboard. 

Jessie’s house had both. Fake brick made largely of asbestos tacked onto deteriorating weatherboards which have a life, like light timber-framed buildings themselves, of about 40 years.

Men in space suits came to take the fake brick off which they did efficiently, quickly and I thought cheaply. And they carted it away. Where to? Back to Wittenoom where it had been dug from? Probably not. Wittenoom is now a declared contaminated site with entry forbidden. Don’t know. Somewhere.

At that time I patched up what was left and painted it carefully several times, but as would be evident 2019 minus about 1950 equals plus or minus 70 years, and the wall, a western-facing wall completely unsheltered from the weather, was cactus. The boards had split at the ends. The paint bubbled because the surfaces had been painted so often. Anywhere near a source of water was rotten with the ever present prospect of dry rot, a fungus that allows you to poke your finger through a piece of wood 50mm thick.

Walls like that make me anxious. I like buildings to be sound and sealed. There is no special reason why they must be, but that’s what I like. Every time I walked past, and this is my daughter’s house, thus regularly, I would see another blister or another crack or another join that was dismembering itself. And there comes a time, as these experiences progressively build on each other where something has to be done. It really just has to be done.

In addition it’s no use living in the best street in Rezza almost next to Crispe Park (pron. ‘Crisspark’) if your joint looks like a dump.

So I roused myself and sought assistance from my friend, staunch and true, Mr Findlay. I knew most things would be out of true and plumb (wasn’t too bad as it turned out) and that the wood framing would be either rotten or like tempered steel and shocking to work (the latter mostly as it also turned out), there’d be no insulation, all the stuff round the electricity supply was shot and a bit spooky  …

Buuuuut, once you get going, well you know, a visit to Bunnings cut cut cut hammer hammer hammer screw screw screw. This too might be a man thing. Atavistic.

These pictures are here partly to celebrate the process (like Tubular Bells: (deep sonorous voice) ‘… the structural ply’) and the result, which was fine. But as well I like the visual aspect of the time series, the change in the weather, the ‘bung eye’ with the drop sheet over one window, how much rubbish is left in the front yard, whether Robbie’s car is home, and so on. And also to give three modest cheers for light timber framing, sufficiently uncomplicated that anybody can attend to it.

Here’s where we start. I have put my hand through a board to cart off to the paint man so he can identify and reproduce the hue. They are so smart these days. Just so smart.

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Not the best thing done ever, but hmmm yes, satisfying. That’s the word we’re searching for.

Don’s Feasts

He was in his best smart casual clothes, had a bit of product in his hair and just for one minute he looked shy. But for one minute only. Because this was the boss, the tour guide, the director, the man. He was, of course, going to make it work. It was within his power, well within.

We’d had to talk him into coming to Belgrade to pick us up. That could have been unfair. He was quite big enough to look after himself, in fact a potent brew when roused. But I don’t know what it’s like crossing the Croatian border into Serbia, driving a rented car and needing to offer a paper thin even if true reason if asked — picking up some Australian friends to drive them back through Eastern Croatia to eat, drink and make merry. You could get some arsehole on the gate who wants to refight the war; or you could, as we later discovered, run into a cheery squat young woman with a large pistol on her hip who simply wanted to wish us a good day.

You don’t know, and of course Don wouldn’t say, what he might have been thinking. Far too practised at this game to say; just waiting to play the cards as they are led. Or as Lord Rowland would say hands flying up in the air, eyes rolling, ‘Don. It’s Don. You know Don.’

As it happened, nothing did happen. He was there, we had had a few days of investigation of the White City and beyond, so we were there too. We even knew where to take him for dinner, Dwa Jelena (Two Deer), to offer him the chance to run through what might be wrong with the cuisine. Or the wine. Or the company. But no. It was a party, a fine reunion. Hoorah. I’d forgotten what huge fun we had together.

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A new chapter had begun.

From Belgrade it was the same vast expanse of the Pannonian Plain, laser-levelled for agriculture, that we were passing through as when we went to Sremski Karlovci with Joci, but the green protuberance of Fruska Gora (‘The Frankish Mountain’, a reference to ancient borders) was to our right rather than our left. Don may have driven us along the ridge of the national park for reasons of picturesque-ity … I can’t remember. We didn’t dawdle; I do remember that. We had crossed the border into Croatia (the agreeable woman mentioned above) before lunch time.

IMG_0756.jpgWe arrived at Ilok, more specifically at Stari Podrumi (‘Old Basements’, probably Cellars really) a winery/ accommodation spot where the solid doors closed with a satisfying ‘climp’ and the windows were the complex European type which open in several directions if not necessarily at the same time. Suddenly Croatia rather than Serbia. Out our window I could see the Danube, on one side Srbija; and on the other Hrvatska. We were just into Croatia. A couple of hundred metres. But it felt like a long way further than that.

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We’d got a bit starey-eyed as this photo suggests, a bit tired, and I could have had a sleep — but I didn’t, and of course I was just as glad. There’s a lot to engage with here at this junction of worlds, not to mention the appetising consequences of some of the most fertile soils in Europe.

The feasts began immediately.

IMG_0760.jpgLunch was Paprika Fish Stew, followed by (at left) two types of pike — rolled in beer batter and chunks deep fried — with catfish in a seeded batter of some sort, accompanied by an award-winning Iločki Podrumi gewurtztraminer. Whatever anyone else thought, I believed it was important to make the most of staying at a superstar winery.

After lunch we had a tour of the cellar with a young woman who spoke excellent English and besides being delightful had answers to all our questions. Quite good going really.IMG_0767.jpgHer name was Maria. I think she stayed with us as our guide to the church, the fort and other highlights of the town. I hope we gave her a good tip.IMG_0771.jpgIt was just near here that our vehicle pulled over and we had an encounter with strawberries, the best strawberries I have ever eaten. They were startlingly good: plump, as big as a baby’s fist but not inflated artificially with hormones, crimson, with a strong inviting smell and irresistible flavour. Powerhouses of the genre.

And this was all before our trip to Principovac for dinner. Don knows how to pack an itinerary.

vinskiturizamuslavoniji-2.jpg‘Near the centre of the historic town of Ilok, on the landscape hill offering stunning views of Ilok, Srijem and Backa, lies the Principovac Castle and Estate that was built in 1864th as summer residence of the Odescalchi family – The Dukes of Ilok, who stayed here during hunting seasons and grape harvestings. Whether you are a true wine connoisseur or you’re on just your way to become one, when you taste the royal Traminer and Graševina from Principovac in different styles you’ll realize that wine is here much more than a profession – it is a lifestyle.

‘Inside the restored castle of Odescalchi family is the Principovac restaurant, which has rich gourmet offer – new age cuisine that is based on indigenous ingredients, flavours of the Croatian Danube and Slavonia prepared in a sophisticated way serving each course with a glass of wine chosen from our rich wine offer.’

Weddings, parties, anything. Four-star accommodation, golf, team building, tennis and badminton courts, playgrounds for children, aquarium, ‘8 km of wine roads ideal for running, romantic walks, bike rides, moped rides or electric car rides’. Exhausting even thinking about it.

We dined at the restaurant with the ‘rich gourmet offer’, and on our own. I’m not 100% sure that the staff thought our presence was preferable to getting home for a big feed of strawberries, but it was all just fine.IMG_0775.jpgTonight, for our pleasure, hmm we drank the Graševina and that was something to behold… now, not in order, medallions of veal, cabbage rolls (closest to us, which were amazing), steak en croute and ‘Herbie’s Dinner’ (which I may have rendered incorrectly) which Don assured us was an outstanding regional speciality and I can’t remember for the life of me what it was. We finished with some of the chateau’s palachinka, a fine digestive. I slept like baby.

On a fresh morning, the precursor to a hottish day, we had the most leisurely of breakfasts under this linden tree. Great coffee. It was sort of perfect.IMG_0777.jpgThe door on the right is the entrance to the cellars, the door on the left to the feasting hall, a little piece of eastern Europe which could have been lot of places.IMG_0765.jpg

We were on our way further east 40 km to Vukovar but we took some time to have a splash in the Danube, a doughty river. Lord R on an embankment.IMG_0773.jpg

I was interested to see Vukovar because, with Srebrenica, it is one of the very serious sites of the 1990s Balkan wars. What would be left from scenes like this I wondered.Unknown.jpeg

During this very muddled conflict (which I have tried to describe elsewhere), fighting broke out in Slavonia (eastern Croatia) in May 1991. In August, the predominantly Serbian Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) launched a full-scale attack against Croatian-held territory of which Vukovar was the lynchpin.

Vukovar was defended by around 1,800 lightly armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) and civilian volunteers, against approximately 36,000 JNA soldiers and Serb paramilitaries equipped with heavy armour and artillery. During the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the town at a rate of up to 12,000 a day. At the time, it was the fiercest and most protracted battle in Europe since 1945, and Vukovar was ‘the first major European town to be entirely destroyed since the Second World War’ (see below).

When Vukovar fell on 18 November 1991, several hundred soldiers and civilians had been killed by Serb forces. In one case at least ‘massacred’ is the term used by Croat commentators. Two hundred bodies were exhumed from a single grave. Subsequently most of the city was ‘ethnically cleansed’ of its non-Serb population — at least 20,000 inhabitants were expelled from the city — and it became part of the self-declared Republic of Serbian Krajina.

There are terrible stories about the 87-day siege, of starving women and children living in cellars and other underground dwellings, inevitable parts of the horror of war. I don’t know much about wars, but the story of the Serb combatants might be more unusual. This follows one account with convincing sources.

Serbia was never formally at war and no general mobilisation was carried out. An estimated 150,000 Serbs went abroad to avoid conscription, and many others deserted or went into hiding. Only 13 percent of conscripts reported for duty. Another 40,000 staged rebellions in towns across Serbia; the Serbian newspaper Vreme commented in July 1991 that the situation was one of ‘total military disintegration’.

Serb morale on the Slavonian battlefield was poor. JNA commanders resorted to firing on their own positions to motivate their men to fight. When the commander of a JNA unit at Vukovar demanded to know who was willing to fight and who wanted to go home, the unit split equally. One conscript, unable to decide which side to take, shot himself. A JNA officer who served at Vukovar later described how his men refused to obey orders, on several occasions ‘abandoning combat vehicles, discarding weapons, gathering on some flat ground, sitting and singing Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon.’

A tank driver, Vladimir Živković, drove his vehicle from the front line at Vukovar to the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade, where he parked it on the steps in front of the building. He was arrested and declared insane by the authorities. His treatment enraged his colleagues, who protested by taking over a local radio station at gunpoint and issuing a declaration that ‘we are not traitors, but we do not want to be aggressors’.

But things changed: fresh (and more capable and determined, or ruthless if you like) leadership in the form of General Života Panić, and fresh ‘troops’, Serbian paramilitary volunteers: well armed, highly motivated, undisciplined, famously brutal. ‘Arkan’s (Željko Ražnatović) Tigers’ had arrived.

The commander of the southern JNA corps was videotaped after the decisive battle praising the Tigers: ‘The greatest credit for this goes to Arkan’s volunteers! Although some people accuse me of acting in collusion with paramilitary formations, these are not paramilitary formations here! These are men who came voluntarily to fight for the Serbian cause. We surround a village, he dashes in and kills whoever refuses to surrender. On we go in triumph!’

And the core of the city, with its unbroken history since neolithic times, was left in ruins.

The degree of destruction of the city is contested. For example an American historian who visited the city shortly after the decisive battle writes: ‘I want to correct a misstatement that has become an urban myth in the annals of the Yugoslav wars. Having visited Vukovar shortly after the conclusion of hostilities and several times since, I can assure you that the city was far from “totally destroyed”. To be more precise, only the relatively small downtown area was devastated. Although there was significant damage to outlying structures that were targeted by JNA artillery (every non-Orthodox church, the train station, the Eltz palace/museum, the water tower, among many others), most of the rest of the town was surprisingly intact.’ And I must say that’s how the pictures look to me. 

But less contested is the damage that was done to the longstanding multicultural harmony of the city.

Some indication of its more recent demographic diversity can be gained from this table.

National structure of the population of Vukovar:

Year

Total

Croats

Serbs

Germans

Hungarians

Others

2011
27,683
15,881
57.4%
9,654
34.9%
58
0.21%
347
1.25%
1,743
6.30%
2001
31,670
18,199
57.5%
10,412
32.9%
58
0.2%
387
1.2%
2,614
8.3%
1990
44,639
21,065
47.2%
14,425
32.3%
94
0.2%
694
1.5%
8,361
18.8%
1971
30,222
14,694
48.6%
9,132
30.2%
60
0.2%
835
2.8%
5,501
18.2%
1948
17,223
10,943
63.5%
4,390
25.5%
54
0.3%
913
5.3%
923
5.3%
1931
10,242
5,048
49.6%
1,702
16.6%
2,670
26.1%
571
5.6%
215
2.0%
1910
10,359
4,092
39.5%
1,628
15.7%
3,503
33.8%
954
9.2%
183
1.8%

One commentator says: Before the war, more than 20 ethnic groups lived in Vukovar. Not only Serbs and Croats, who made up the majority, and those who identified as “Yugoslavs” (roughly 10 percent), but also Ruthenians/Rusyns, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and many others. Moreover, the citizens of Vukovar were proud of their multicultural city, and ethnic background was irrelevant in daily life and social relations. That is no more. The city’s children are now educated separately by ethnic group; the Cyrillic (Serbia’s choice of alphabet) on road and other signs required by Croatia’s constitutional protection of minority groups is regularly vandalised.

Vukovar had for centuries been an important port on the Danube with the interesting demographic history that that entails. It seems to have been the world’s heart of copper-smithing during the Vučedol culture of 3000-2200BC. At one time it had eight mosques to cater for its Ottoman population. At other times it has been home to the Romans (who for centuries used the Danube as a line of defence), Vandals, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavic Russians, Magyars, Slovaks, Jews, Austrians and so on. But there is something about multiculturalism that really offends some people. They just hate it.

The history, but not the offence, was on display in the city’s wonderful museum. I’m not sure that I was looking properly or if we ducked through the side of the city — I might in fact not have credited just how complete the restoration of the town had been. This today, for example, is exactly the same view as the troubled ruins above.

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The equivalent of $40m Australian dollars (kuna from the EU in fact) has been spent on the restoration of Castle Eltz, the building housing the museum. There are are still some pockmarks in the tower, but everything else was in pristine condition. And excellent.

IMG_0791.jpgOne reason for its interest is that the only reference to the recent troubles is some silent pictures in the top floor. The other floors are concerned with the region’s history from pre-historic times with consistently thoughtful and high quality exhibits. 

Zoran, below, made a florid, arty and enthusiastic guide. He could have been dressed by Eastern Market which will make sense to no one but Myrna.

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IMG_0786.jpgJust as it happens in the basement  there was an exhibition about torture which I confess I had to be dragged away from.

There are just so many ways to use physical pain, most of which seem to be been employed since time immemorial, and most of which seem to have found willing employers.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of this when the US decides that water boarding — a very old form of punishment —  is a perfectly acceptable way to force confessions and information out of prisoners.

To far happier moments. We had arrived in the middle of the Kopački Rit wetlands, ‘the greenest waters and forests in the whole of Slavonia’, at the junction of the Drava and Danube Rivers.IMG_0798.jpgThe border between Serbia and Croatia at this point is a long series of curlicues (the thin black line below), perhaps to share the best aspects of this highly fertile region. For reasons of convenience I’ve tipped this map over, North is on the left hand side. It’s just to illustrate what I mean, and you’ll get the point.Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 1.51.22 pm.png

A highlight, and a superior photo of a highly photogenic subject.IMG_0802.jpgWe had moved on to the Komoran Restoran, another of Don’s Specials. ‘Komoran’ means ‘gloomy’ in Hungarian, but I’ve spelt it wrong obviously. ‘Kormoran’ means ‘cormorant’ in Croatian, and that would be far more suitable because of its splendid setting in the middle of the wetlands. And we were having a major regional specialty.In our region Catfish on Forked Branch and cooked in smoke is the most appreciated fish specialties’ (tourist info), and this was it on arrival.IMG_0806.jpgDon said it was even more special because it had been caught from the bottom of Danube in the muddy waters, and er hem I must confess that was how it tasted. (Look, you can’t go ooh ahh about everything. You’ve got to call it how you see it. The spuds were nice and the visuals outstanding. We were also entertained by some nesting and very familiar martins.)

It was 20 km, if that, to Karanac where we were to spend the night.IMG_0834.jpg Karanac is an ‘ethno village’ whichhas in the past few years become a magnet for numerous foreign and domestic tourists who enjoy the rich gastronomic and tourist offer of this area. In Karanac visitors can experience the feeling of far gone, past times, where each household had a story that was slowly carried on from generation to generation, keeping its authenticity and lifestyle far from the hustle and bustle of an urban area.’ Website publicity, but all true.

What that meant in addition was that we stayed at a mate of Don’s who was pumping up the tyres of this industry, that you could stay in a delightful cabin like this, IMG_0820.jpgthat you could trip over an offering like this in the footpath,IMG_0818.jpg

 

IMG_0821.jpgthat you could stay somewhere with a garden that would feed you most things you would want to eat,IMG_0828.jpgand that you actually could eat at the local pub. IMG_0813.jpgPaprika soup was the dish du jour, the highlight special and it was delicious.

It also meant that Don was in his element. Never looked better.IMG_0830.jpgThis was taken, a regretful farewell, after a most sumptuous all-star breakfast a lot of which had come out of the garden or from the chooks and cows in the paddock. This was a highly successful deviation.

We went further north up into the corner of Croatia to Batina where the Allies (a reminder, Yugoslavs and Russians, allies) crossed the Danube in the closing phases of the Second World War.IMG_0836.jpgHow did they do that? A unit consisting mostly of soldiers from Vojvodina (now northern Serbia) crossed the river on rafts or fishing boats under cover of an enormous artillery bombardment of the German positions on the right bank of the river. The battle went to and fro as efforts were made to supplement the allied soldiers on this side of the river, until after 18 days all Germans between the two rivers, Drava and Danube, had been killed or driven out.

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According to some historians the Battle of Batina was the biggest battle by number of participants, intensity of fighting, and strategic importance that occurred in Yugoslavia during the World War II.

South to Đakovo (with a ‘dj’) and its horses. The Stud Farm in Đakovo was established in 1506 which qualifies it to be among the oldest stud farms in Europe. Horses of the Lipizzaner breed have been bred in the Stud Farm since the beginning of the 19th century. I think the only other Lipizzaner ‘school’, a successor to this one, the original, is in Austria.Unknown.jpeg

The horses trot, dance and jump and do clever formation things while you watch, delighted. 1.jpgI’m not so much a horse person, but amongst our number were those who are.IMG_0849.jpgHe knew what he was looking for.

IMG_0842.jpgWe had look at the cathedral, yes and no; its crypt, better.

But then, suddenly, hordes of young people started appearing.

Hordes …

 

IMG_0845.jpgIt was the last day of school, and all the graduands had come into the middle of town, stopping it absolutely — but with no complaints, this was a significant cultural event — and with their umbrellas and their costumes they performed a lengthy quadrille (dance in fours). It was one of those moments that can happen when you’re travelling, completely unexpected but such a thrill to see.

They were so well drilled and well behaved. Youth and beauty, a joy to behold. I asked Don what happens next and he said, they go off and get drunk. Of course.

Back to Zagreb for a warm welcome from the family: Mirjana, Lucas, Ivan, Dina and Nika.IMG_0869.jpg

And that night — what can I say — another visit to the Restoran Trnjanska and its finest black lamb. The Grey Falcon had, as always, done his job.IMG_0878.jpg