Week 320 – Escher and EDM

On Tuesday I joined the excited crowds at the newly opened NGV summer blockbuster show – ‘Escher vs Nendo’. Nendo are a Japanese interior design practice, and they had devised the thoughtful exhibition spaces within which Escher’s intricate small prints were expertly displayed.

The Escher prints were delightful – I’ve never seen so many of them together (and a great number of them were new to me). I was especially taken with the first few rooms displaying his early experiments with lithography and woodcut, including a gorgeous pair of birds (a geometric parrot and the gorgeous tiny thrush pictured), and a beautifully delicate and nuanced lithographic self-portrait (looking like quite the Fitzroy hipster!).

Escher spent a number of years in Italy – and it was these landscapes – tiny walled citadels perching on rocky hillsides and plunging coastlines (in particular the act of peering down precipitous cliffs at villages tumbling into the sea) that later shaped his strangely-angled impossible landscapes.

Pictured here are a lithograph of vertiginous Castrovalva, Abruzzi, and a woodcut of a rustic tiled hill-village cottage (which had the energy of one of Van Gogh’s churning landscapes).

Possibly my favourite image in the show was a view across the deck of a freighter at sea, all bold black verticals and beautiful cross-hatched waves which fade into the distance so subtly. Escher and his family used to enjoy travelling around the Mediterranean on working boats.

The later rooms were devoted to Escher’s more surreal images, in particular his exhaustive study of the possibilities offered up by tiled ‘tessellations’.

Images that stood out for me included his beautiful magnified study of a sparkling dew-drop on a soft crazy-paved grey oak leaf, the ‘tessellated’ Reptiles, emerging from the draughtsman’s page to crawl across his desk full of mathematical implements.

Nendo’s design got more expansive at this point in the show – with a vast hall full of three dimensional tessellations – simple house shapes transforming from black to white.

Hidden amongst them were a generous selection of Escher’s ever-more-strange tessellations – recognisable ants, butterflies, birds, fish and snakes began to morph into puzzle menageries of fantastical beasts.

The following room was set up as a disjointed metal cage/maze, black metal bars almost lining up in house shapes, but not quite. Here were Escher’s first experiments with multiple perspectives, all in the one image (I liked the simurgh on the moon pictured!).

In his final works he was attempting to represent infinity, and he worked with leading mathematicians of the time who were impressed with his efforts. His impossible waterfall is still one of my favourites.

Nendo’s installation in the final room of the exhibition was nice too – a great circular cloud of tiny black/white one-dimensional house shapes which revealed a ghostly reverse image as you circumnavigated it.

Tommy took part (reluctantly!) in his Kindergarten’s end-of-year show on Thursday. It was a less ambitious production than in years past with no requirements for the children to speak or sing, but there was plenty of dancing. Each small cluster of children (various superheroes, ‘community’ heroes, kids dressed as their mums and dads) took to the front of the stage for an energetic jump up and down to a loosely-themed song (‘I believe I can fly’ for the superheroes, ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T’ for the community, Tommy as a dad had to jig to Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Working Class Man’!). As usual, the set was the best bit – a big painted cardboard cityscape, complete with three dimensional windowed cardboard skyscrapers (almost as good as Julian Opie’s similar NGV installation!).

On Friday I went to see Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie ‘Roma’. It is a love-letter to his childhood nanny (very much part of his family, she continues to live with them in her old age) and to his 1970s family neighbourhood (Roma), a genteel crumbling art deco suburb of Mexico City. In a year of political schism and civil unrest, the family weathers its own storms, the loving young nanny seemingly a pillar of calm but secretly fearful for her own future when she becomes pregnant by a callous lover. Filmed in sparkling monochrome, it was a beguiling slice of life, quietly encompassing so much (life and death and family and society) – fantastic!

Saturday was an unusually action-packed day (even for us!). First thing in the morning Maisie, Tommy and I met Rowena, Sebastian and Adrian at the station for a rumbustious journey into town where there were festivals and Christmas activities galore. Already kicking off was Fed Square’s African celebration with a stage full of young Sudanese dancers.

Round the corner was this year’s Christmas Gingerbread Village. It is Melbourne-themed with Brighton Beach scenes, a lovely Luna Park, the MCG, Flemington Race Course, and each year a couple of new creations – this year the bakers had modelled up the Children’s Hospital, and Federation Square itself. There was also a large Japanese temple (to celebrate Melbourne’s partnership with Osaka – something I wasn’t aware of!).

The children (we’d been joined by Roni, Samuel and Nathan by this point too – all together they were quite a rabble) were so excited by the hundreds of little icing figurines busily engaged in every sort of activity, and by the water features and the flashing lights. They peered over the top of the walls of the MCG to see which footie teams were playing (represented were the two teams from this year’s final of course!).

The kids had more fun at the African festival – joining in a drumming workshop, throwing balls and eating candy-floss, while I walked along the river to another festival at which I was due to play gamelan. This was the ‘World Rice Festival’, an interesting event celebrating rice-producing-nations and their associated cuisines. Sadly, it was very quiet – the only way to access it involved walking through the enticing line of African festival food stalls, so most potential visitors had got waylaid!

We played Baleganjur to ourselves (it was a picturesque location for it at least) then our unruly gang of kids came to watch the performance of Cendrawasih. I was playing gongs – always a lovely place to be! Maisie and Tommy posed with the dancers afterwards (thanks, Row, for the photo!), and made it on to the event’s twitter feed.

After playing our one tune, Maisie, Tommy and I had to rush off (such a shame as there were many tempting South-East-Asian treats on offer at the food stalls). We had tickets for another festival in St Kilda in the afternoon.

The Pleasure Garden was a one-day electronic dance music event held in Catani Gardens, one of our local beach-side parks. It was a proper music festival set-up, with several large imaginatively-decorated stages (one was a huge overgrown greenhouse), food and trinket stalls, fairground rides, quirky seating areas festooned with brightly coloured mobiles and streamers, with sofas, rocking chairs, even beds to lounge on. There were croquet and boules and board games, and a large area devoted to circus toys – hoops, poi, jugging balls and batons etc. – which anyone could play with (this was, unsurprisingly, the children’s favourite spot!).

We weren’t the only family there, but the crowd was mainly made up of 20-somethings, in all manner of sparkly scruffy hippyish garb (we spotted festival gear that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s or ‘00s – there was nothing ‘new’ as such, apart from the sophisticated facial glitter and gems!). We spotted sequinned Abba-style bodysuits, clashing African-inspired prints, sheer chiffon kimonos over bikinis, messy hair (no straighteners here!), ragged denim cut-offs and crop tops, neons, ballooning peasant dresses and big boots. An older man was sporting a homemade hat made of the disembodied head and limbs of a plastic child’s doll (like a cherubic Durga!).

Neil had researched the bands and put together our musical schedule. First up was Zambian/Australian rapper and singer Sampa the Great. She had a chilled, cheery presence, fronting up a tight band of musicians (including a saxophonist – a nice touch!) all clad in freshly-pressed white linen suits. She sang nu-soul, and did a little spoken word and on-message rapping, and got the audience joining in.

Next up were Haiku Hands, a kind of knowing electro-pop Spice Girls. Their lyrics were all girl-power and standing up for your mates, and they had a devoted following of young girls who were moshing considerately at the front! They were very entertaining – we’d definitely go see them again!

We stopped for sustenance (cheesy gözleme and chips) in a shady grove with a ‘play-me-i’m-yours’ organ – then the kids were ready for more action. We sampled the dirty bass of K+Lab which inspired Maisie and Tommy’s first dancing of the day (they are both very reticent about dancing – Maisie appears to want to, but is too shy to let herself go!). Then we found a spot at the main stage for the headliners (and the band we were there to see), rising Aussie stars Confidence Man. Their brand of trashy simple electro-pop appeals to Maisie and Tommy (it is what they request the most from Neil’s eclectic iPod playlist). Maisie, in particular, was thrilled to see them in person. She chatted about them to a gentle 20-something lad who was chilling out on the grass beside her!

The four-piece band is from Brisbane. Involved initially in the local psych-rock scene, they decided to experiment with pop as a side project, then discovered they were very good at it! They gave themselves ludicrous pseudonyms – Janet Planet and Sugarbones are the singers/dancers – and the drummer and keyboard players wear beekeeper masks (and little else). The music is fun, slightly messy ‘90s-throw-back high energy pop with silly dance routines and catchy repetitious lyrics (hence the child-appeal!). Their stage show was very entertaining with frequent costume changes and hi-jinks. The only problem was that both children wanted to be able to see everything – but this they could only do if they were on Neil’s shoulders. He was very obliging and had a very sore back the following day.

Confidence Man left the stage at 6.30pm and Neil nobly took the children home and let me stay for more fun! I made my way over to the ‘Beach Bar’ which was blasting out classy Ibiza House music (it was advertised as ‘Melbourne’s first beach bar’ – I’m not sure this was true, but it was certainly the first time I’d danced to fat beats on the Melbourne sands, watching the kite-surfers zoom past in the chilly silver sunset breeze).

A traditional early-evening festival hot chocolate revived my energy for a burst of energetic dancing to British Nigerian singer/MC Eva Lazarus. Performing on the tiny Bass Station stage (pretty much a hole in a wall, with just enough room for her to squeeze in front of a couple of DJ decks) she had great spirit and an irresistible cheeky rapport with her audience (who were, quite literally, in her face). She spun her spiky poetry over every sort of bass-heavy-beat – from dub reggae, via soca and trap, to full-on jungle and drum and bass. It was just the sort of stuff that I love to dance to.

Her set was followed by an hour of Bristol DJ Mad Professor’s classic dub reggae cuts – it was also great, but my already depleted energy reserves were exhausted (it was 9pm – very late for me these days!).

I did a circuit of the site before I left – it looked so pretty at night, with strings of coloured lights, piles of patterned orange-glowing light-boxes, flashing fairground rides, and circus performers manipulating dazzling led-studded hula hoops and pois, creating amazing patterns. The park rotunda was lit with blue ultraviolet lights, and a team of artists were painting swirling uv green/orange/yellow patterns all over a very patient bikini-clad punter!

I took Maisie and Tommy to hear some very different music on Sunday afternoon. Our local church was staging its annual Christmas Tree festival which culminates in a community carol singing session. It’s a cheerfully amateur affair, a bossy old woman directing from the piano (on which she bashes out approximate renditions of the standards).

There was a priest, but she was rather sidelined, only coming on to tell the children the Christmas story as they sat clustered round the crib. On the plus side, we did get through a lot of carols, which Tommy and Maisie were keen to hear reprised once we got home (‘O Christmas Tree’ is Tommy’s new favourite).


Week 319 – food and fangirls

Our unsettled Spring weather continued this week, veering from chill drizzle via sultry thunderstorm to full-on 30+ degree sunshine. As a result, some of our outdoor activities were far more successful than others! On one of the colder days I took Tommy to a story-time session in the breezy MPavilion, where we were joined by Moko and Liam. The boys sat right at the front and were very taken with the lively facilitators, the simple farmyard-themed tales and songs, and the bubbles and craft activities afterwards. We also popped into the NGV to show Liam Tommy’s latest favourite art pieces (we attempted a double Julian Opie-style portrait this week!).

In contrast, it was extremely sunny and hot for Tommy’s park-held kinder Christmas party. He was rather overwhelmed by the boisterous crowd of children (he stuck to my side the entire time) but was happy to receive a present from Father Christmas!

We enjoyed some good food – at Myomi’s where Tommy, Maisie and I stuffed ourselves with tacos laden with her own slow-cooked chilli, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream and cheese; at a local tapas bar with a jolly bunch of St Kilda mum friends (highlights were crispy fried sardines, cheese/chorizo croquettes, piquant white anchovies and sticky long-cooked lamb shank); at restaurant ‘After the tears’ with Rowena (soused herrings and crispy blinis) and at a Christmas party with lots of sprightly older ladies at Lizzie K’s mum’s house (Maggie has mastered the sophisticated vegetarian cuisine of Guardian favourite Yotam Ottolenghi!).

Neil took Tommy and Maisie to watch an afternoon of women’s cricket. The playing was, apparently, top notch, as were the kid’s activities – bouncing castles, bicycle-powered-smoothie-machines etc.!

I took Maisie along to a gamelan rehearsal (I’m playing in a gig at a city centre ‘world rice festival’ next weekend), and she spent the time making a great number of origami tulips (her current obsession!). At the weekend we assembled the wonderful advent calendar mum sent!

Rowena and I went to see a new documentary entitled ‘I used to be normal: a boyband fangirl story’ by young Aussie director Jessica Leski. It was a fascinating study of four fan-girls of very different ages and backgrounds, revealing unlikely parallels between the lives of a 60-something Aussie TV producer and Beatles fan, and a burgeoning teen American ‘One Directioner’. They were delightful, perceptive women, with so many interesting things to say about the nature of fandom and the great solace and strength and inspiration it had provided them with.

Week 318 – people walking and dancing

Neil went off on another of his impossibly short overseas trips this week – 2 days in Copenhagen, almost 3 days travelling! On Monday Tommy attended his first (of 4) Prep transition sessions. All he had to do was to play for an hour – with marble runs, blocks, fishing games and pencils (he drew an elevator – his current obsession!). He spent more time at school later in the week – the second of his kindergarten’s facilitated visits – so he may will be the most well-transitioned child of all time (he is pictured below chilling out in the library afterwards)!

On Wednesday evening Sam, Lizzie K and Claire-Anne came over to my place for supper. I made some lentil dhal and a cauliflower curry, and they were well received, but the biggest hit of the night were microwaved pappadums and mango chutney (not well known here, seemingly!). Sam was about to spend three child-free days with her parents and sister at Uluru, so she was on very good form. Claire-Anne is steeling herself for her Christmas trip to Europe, travelling with her three small kids!

Tommy expressed a desire to go to a gallery on Thursday. I’m hoping this is the start of a life-long love of the arts and not just a brief phase! We went to the NGV International, where there were a number of new things to see, including an extensive selection of old pieces and new commissions by the British artist Julian Opie. On the pavement outside the gallery entrance were two of his animated stick-figures jogging endlessly on tall white-led dot matrix boards. More of these boards were mounted behind the huge water-wall, darting across them were the white outlines of carp.

In the foyer were a cluster of (what looked like) outsize children’s wooden building blocks, painted to look like skyscrapers, and the lawns of the back garden were dotted with little floor-mounted screens, each one a little dot-matrix animated bird, walking and pecking. The (real) pigeons didn’t know what to make of them! Also hidden round the back, (another Opie piece), was a huge update of the Brussels ‘pissing boy’ fountain, which was getting a lot of attention from all the school kids!

Opie had also devised several activities for the children’s gallery. There were felt shapes to be used to design simple collages of faces, and, much more popular, a neat app which enabled the user to create their own ‘Julian Opie style’ self-portrait. Pictured is Tommy’s and my joint effort! The adults, in particular, were really getting into this activity – I predict it will be one of the ‘must-do’ things this summer!

The rooms devoted to Opie’s work were lined with screens – all his works were animated – a simple block-colour sketch of a harbour showed the boats gently bobbing while a ferry shuffled along the horizon, a view of a cornfield showed yellow sheepsbit shifting in the breeze and the white line of a distant vapour trail (these countryside scenes brought to mind David Hockney’s recent computer-painted images). Faces winked and sequinned tops shimmered.

Tommy liked the simple computer-game-like simulations – traveling along a winding road or tunnel or tracking through a maze. But he was most taken by the big dot-matrix walking people – particularly the wall-sized display of commuters striding along at different speeds. He spent a long time ‘joining in’ – following them from one end of the wall to the other.

There was another big screen-based work on the top floor of the gallery. Hito Steyerl’s ‘Factory of the Sun’ was an immersive video piece about protest and surveillance and drones, motion capture and internet dancing (the dancers clad in distinctive skin-tight gold spandex!). Tommy was captivated, and described it all in detail to Maisie when she came home after school!

All the screens made my eyes sore, but thankfully there was a calm palate-cleansing work situated in the back courtyard. Melbourne architects Muir and landscape architect studio OPENWORK had created an intriguing outdoor space inspired by the monumental grey stone and jagged roof of the NGV building, and by the original 1960s landscaping of the garden, which featured a bamboo forest. There were grassy hills, yellow wildflowers, white gravel, red brick, dark concertinaed grey steel walls and a cloud corridor which almost swallowed Tommy up! We had lots of fun exploring it!

Maisie had swimming lessons this week – the school ferries the kids to and from the MSAC pool every day for two weeks for a half hour session. Maisie enjoyed the lessons, but was more excited about choosing someone to sit to next to on the bus! She still had plenty of energy left to practice her tricks on the hanging bars (her hands are covered in blisters, but she doesn’t let that stop her!).

Neil arrived home on Friday night and slotted straight back into the routine (even going for his regular run on Sunday) – he seems to have jet-lag beaten! On Saturday we all caught the tram up to Melbourne furniture-mecca Bridge Street to buy a new sofa-bed (exciting news for any potential visitors!). In the evening I headed over to the Margaret Court Arena to hear David Byrne play the penultimate date in 9-month-long world ‘American Utopia Tour’.

The support was Kiwi singer Kimbra, with her two-piece electro backing band. She had a great voice and an impressive stage presence – a bit like a tidier Kate Bush, certainly her outfit was inspired by the floaty ‘80s diva – great butterfly-wing printed flowing silk culottes and matching jacket, they looked fabulous under the stage lights.

Byrne is known for his immaculate theatrics as much as his musicianship – his shows combine dance and theatre with brilliant live music. The concept for this tour was to free the stage of clutter (no non-portable gear, monitors, leads etc.) and make his musicians entirely mobile (their radio-miked instruments – including keyboards and drums – were strapped to them by way of clever harnesses – engineers managed the sound off-stage).

The stage was a box-like structure, walls of shimmering silver bead curtains, reflecting white light, occasionally red or a rainbow, or acting as a giant shadow screen. There were few props, just a few cleverly-situated lights, and, at the opening, a small table on which was placed a brain – Byrne’s first song was about the different areas of it – he pointed them out like a scientist as he sang. He’s a commanding presence, slim in his grey suit with a shock of white hair – and he can still dance, although he isn’t quite as madly bendy as he used to be!

The musicians, including Byrne, were all dressed in identical grey suits and they functioned flexibly as band, dancers, even actors (a menacing line, or a partying one!). The choreography for each song was different, suiting the mood. Everyone was always on the move – marching or dancing, strictly together or free-form. There wasn’t one mis-step, it was incredibly slick!

The songs from Byrne’s latest album were sombre but they worked well as a counterpoint to the timeless funk/pop of the Talking Heads classics – ‘Burning down the house’, ‘Road to Nowhere’, ‘Slippery People’ etc. Byrne gave his all to the brilliant ‘Once in a lifetime’ (my favourite), waggling his head crazily, his white hair silhouetted against a dark stage, as he asked the existential questions in the verse, then shuffling backwards and forwards with the band in the chorus (‘same as it ever was’).

It was a great show and the audience (an interesting-looking, mainly older, arty crowd) did not want it to end – I’ve rarely heard such an enthusiastic and untiring cheering and clapping for an encore. The couple next to me had flown over from Perth especially for the gig!

The kids were playing quite nicely on Sunday – traffic games and the inevitable ‘holidays’ which involves loading the complete contents of their bedrooms into bags, dragging them noisily along the corridor and setting up camp in the living room (and then refusing to tidy up!). Neil let me escape for the afternoon and I went to see two films. The first was Steve McQueen’s new movie ‘Widows’, a remake and US-reset of a Lynda La Plante ‘80s mini-series. When their husbands are killed in a botched robbery, the widows are left to pick up the debt, and the only way they can raise the funds is to carry out their own audacious heist. The women were good, grieving but steely, and the gritty Chicago setting amidst local election corruption, was convincing, but it was a mainstream film, lacking the unsettling power of McQueen’s earlier, more indie/art-house movies.

The second movie was ‘Strange Colours’, by young Aussie director Alena Lodkina. Set in a remote outback opal mining community, it was about a young, directionless, woman who travels from the city to visit her estranged and sick father. She wanders the landscapes of scrubby red dust and white shale (and the dark claustrophobic tunnels of the hand-hewn mines), interacting with the local crew of eccentric old men and failing to make a connection with her spiky, taciturn dad. It was atmospheric and nicely filmed, but slight.

Week 317 – trains, trenches and tortoises

Monday was hazy and overcast but hot, so Tommy and I decided to head to the beach. The sky was silvery grey blending into an unruffled sea, the horizon barely distinguishable, and Tommy was happy to sit on the boardwalk for an hour quietly watching the distant container ships inch by, the big tractors smoothing the sands, and the morning workmen busy cleaning off graffiti and erecting security cameras. Jeremy and Henry came over from Thornbury, and the boys had fun drawing complicated transport arrangements with sticks in the sand (see Tommy’s container ship!).

On Monday night there was a meeting at the school for parents with kids starting in ‘Prep’ next year. Before she told us the key facts, the headmistress asked everyone what emotions they were experiencing with regards to their children starting school! There were various answers of ‘anxious’, ‘relieved’, ‘excited’. I’m feeling a bit ‘sad’ – I’ve really appreciated not being bound to office life (or politics) for the last few years, and being able to hang out at the beach, galleries and museums and explore the city – these elements have certainly outweighed the drudgery of childcare and housework (both of which Neil does more than his fair share of anyway) – as I hope this blog attests to!

On Wednesday I voted for the first time in an Australian election. As voting is compulsory here, they make it fairly easy to do. I was able to cast my vote at an early polling station a week and a half before the election date. It wasn’t even based in my constituency (although geographically it was the closest to my house) – you can vote anywhere here, they even have a polling station at the airport! Less satisfactory was the system whereby you have to ‘rank’ all the candidates – even those whose policies you abhor (if you don’t do this your vote is spoiled).

On Thursday Tommy and I went to the zoo. It’s still an outing that we love, though we’ve been countless times! We started with the sleepy snow leopard, and the frisky coatis, who were burrowing for beetles and enjoying their complex aerial walkways and jungle-gyms (Tommy was envious of their set-up!).

The three young male lions were on the prowl, eyeing us up only inches away behind the glass wall – you really felt their physical presence! They were pretty nonchalant though, and soon took themselves off for a spot of lazy grooming.

We spent some time with Little John and Gilbert, the giant tortoises. Little John was tackling a challenging vegetable-based game, rather like apple-bobbing. A lettuce and a red pepper were suspended on strings – the frondy lettuce wasn’t too much of a challenge, but the shiny red pepper kept slipping out of his horny grasp and almost bopping him on the head as it swung round (he ducked his head pretty fast to avoid it!).

The flowerbeds (brilliant with spring blooms, such as the kangaroo paws pictured), hedgerows and trees were alive with butterflies, dragonflies and wild birds – including a beeping bell miner (I often hear them but rarely spot them, so was pleased to snap the above picture!) and a bevy of tiny jewel-bright superb fairy wrens (pictured below).

The birds in the large aviary weren’t looking quite so happy – although they looked healthy enough they had abandoned their usual canopy perches as a lot of the larger established trees seem to have suddenly died.

We visited a lively and finely-patterned lace monitor lizard who had recently shed his skin (maybe he was feeling extra light and nimble in his fresh skin!). He prowled around flicking his long forked tongue for flies, and occasionally pressed himself into a rocky cleft, giving us a strangely knowing look!

Tommy enjoyed the toilet maze (‘which animal has the most unique poo?!’) and the antics of the tribe of baboons. There were so many youngsters, cavorting around and teasing their elders (who sashayed off in disdain), climbing trees and knocking each other off the branches.

There was much affection in evidence too, mothers snuggling, their infants’ tiny hands wrapped round their waists, and I enjoyed watching a sister looking out for her wayward younger brother.

Jack came over on Friday (just the start of my repaying Myomi all the favours I owe her!). He and Tommy threw themselves into a series of tram and train games, mainly quite happily, and had a ball in the park climbing in a pile of recently felled eucalypt branches and collecting hundreds of tiny gum-nuts (which have since migrated into Tommy’s bedroom carpet!).

On a lovely sunny Saturday we all caught the train over to the west of the city to visit the Newport Railway Museum. Situated on a piece of land abutting Melbourne’s rail engineering workshops (we spotted a fleet of white-plastic-shrinkwrapped electric trains newly shipped in from China) and sidings owned by ‘Steamrail Victoria’ (an old locomotive was just getting up a head of steam as we whizzed past on our electric metro), it comprises an extensive collection of old Australian steam engines, a few early diesels, two of the country’s first electric engines and a selection of passenger and freight carriages.

The place is maintained and run by volunteers. They were very friendly and anxious to tell us about everything in great detail! We looked inside a 1907 sleeper carriage. The detailing was beautiful, all warm golden art deco inlaid wood panelling, white pressed metal ceilings, engraved glass door panels and electric lamps, elegantly fold-out basins with deco flower reliefs and shiny leather banquettes, all still in great nick.The carriage, which ran on the Adelaide-Melbourne line, was in use for 85 years!

Many of the steam engine cabs were open to explore. Tommy’s favourite was an 1880 light tank locomotive (in service for 80 years – which seems a long time for a steam engine!).

Maisie liked the largest steam engine, a 1941 monster, complete with a mechanical stoker. It was so heavy that few bridges could support it (WW2 prevented money going into them being strengthened) and it was withdrawn from service in 1958.

I appreciated the styling of the 1950s diesel locomotives and the evocative Hopper-esque interior of a late 1930s buffet car – long shiny white formica counter, red leather bar stools (which spun round), stainless steel canteen. On the (reproduced) menu were meat pies and mash and (surprisingly) tomato sandwiches!

Most of the engines had been manufactured locally. Clyde engineering turned out to be Clyde, Sydney – but there were plates naming ‘Northern Britain’ (i.e. Scotland) as the place of manufacture, and there was one locomotive made in Philadelphia, USA.

There was a former nondescript wooden train carriage that had been converted into an early electric ‘Motor’ car, the guard’s compartment modified to include a driver’s cab. It was extremely poky, with only a tiny hard stool to sit on, but I suppose engine drivers weren’t used to comfort back in the day!

The children were very engaged by the museum and didn’t want to miss a thing – but the pièce de résistance was certainly the model railway, housed in a little shed by the museum entrance. Donated by a 1970s train enthusiast, it featured hand-built scale models of many of the early Australian trains, which whizzed through a mini-landscape of hills and bridges, tunnels and small country stations (quite a different scene to Chris’s gritty recreation of mid-C20th greater Manchester!).

It was hard to drag Tommy away, but we made it back home by the late afternoon. Maisie spotted Hannah in the park and I ended up gatecrashing Natasha’s friend’s birthday party (I seem to be making a habit of this!) while the children went mulberry scrumping (see picture!).

In the evening I went to see a movie screening as part of this year’s Jewish Film Festival at the Elsternwick Classic. I got one of the last tickets, I had no idea it would be so popular. The film was ‘The Interpreter’, by Slovakian director Martin Šulík, a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the burden of grief and guilt felt by the children of war aggressors and victims. An gentle elderly Slovakian man, the child of Jews murdered in WW2, seeks to avenge his parents when he, by chance, discovers the name of the SS officer who killed them. But when he turns up, clutching a gun, at the German’s smart Austrian apartment, he encounters, instead, the officer’s middle-aged son, a lively, conflicted man who has spent his life shutting out the horror of his dad’s actions, but wants, finally, to find some way of coming to terms with them by visiting the Slovakian scenes of his father’s crimes. An odd-couple road-trip ensues.

Early on Sunday morning I was back at the Classic to watch ‘They shall not grow old’, Peter Jackson’s recent restoration of archive WW1 footage, released to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. His team has cleaned and coloured it, added in depth and detail and edited the results into a compelling montage, narrated by a lively tapestry of veteran voices, detailing life as it was lived in the trenches. It was a fascinating and powerful movie, an important social history document, conveying the horror (and the humanity) of trench warfare.

An afternoon of sunshine took us to the beach where the kids happily dug deep holes in the sand. Neil and I didn’t need to join in at all – it’s still quite a novel experience watching the kids entertain each other and it was certainly appreciated!

Week 316 – air and water

It was Melbourne Cup week and the Facebook feeds were jammed with heavily filtered shots of friends in their chiffon finery and feathery fascinators (a trend this year was for red/gold Russian tiara-style headbands). Travelling anywhere by train you were surrounded by a perfumed, estate agent-suited/pancake-made-up crowd. They were all rather bedraggled on Tuesday when Tommy, Maisie and I waded (quite cheerfully!) through flash floods to ScienceWorks.

It was a school closure day, and ScienceWorks (as ever) was the number one destination. It was manically busy, but the kids still had a lovely time, playing their favourite traffic controlling game, and disappearing through the revolving door. I’m always hopeful they might actually engage with the content – and this time they spent a little time considering robotic limbs and surgery and sustainable energy. We popped into the new ‘teenagers’ gallery which was full of complicated concepts – black holes and gravitational waves. I struggled to make sense of them myself, but there were plenty of stretchy things, mirror mazes, and snow machines to play with.

On Thursday Tommy announced that he wanted to go to the art gallery, so, of course, I was only to happy to oblige! We went to the NGV Ian Potter where there were lots of new things to see. Most of them were displayed in semi-darkness (for some reason) which spooked Tommy a little! There was a display of quirky furniture (including Lucy McRae’s spiny lamp pictured – it is covered in toothpicks!), and an exhibition of room-sized installations by interior designers shortlisted for this year’s Rigg Design Prize (Australia’s most prestigious contemporary design competition).

The brief for the Rigg prize was to create a furnished domestic room that was ‘embedded with values, ideas and stories… [and that engaged] with the cultural, historical, material and technological aspects of society’.

Most entrants seem to have gone for the easy option – i.e. historical. There was ‘30s modernism, ‘70s decadence and a neo-colonial room, which (alarmingly!) was Tommy’s favourite (I think it was the globe light that attracted him).

My favourite was a blonde wood and terracotta ensemble (ticking the ‘materials’ box). More of an artwork than a functional room (the taps and candles were cut-outs of clay), it was fun and definitely the most aesthetically pleasing.

You couldn’t go inside the competition rooms, but there were several little lounges, furnished with ridiculous contemporary furniture and shelves full of design books, which Tommy and I enjoyed hanging out in! We coveted a lovely soft grey rug woven with star constellations.

The gallery foyers were full of sculptures by the Australian artist Ken Unsworth. They were large absurd ensembles, often with a mechanical element. A man lay pinned to the floor by a large grand piano, rapping angrily with a cane, another man shivered in a cloud of blood-like glass balloons. Tommy was most taken with a piece featuring a couple of skeletons seated at either end of a long table, rolling a metal ball to each other.

After all that, Tommy was still keen to see more art! We caught the tram up to RMIT, where there were two shows on – a little student display in the basement (a video of someone doing yoga by a lake, and a collage of advertising slogans), and a more ambitious exhibition in the main space, entitled ‘Dynamics of Air’. Artists and designers had been asked to devise works visualizing and exploring the properties of air.

There were glass breathing apparatus, swirls of dry ice, and an attractive kinetic sculpture made of a lightly suspended white gauze scarf which was periodically dropped from the ceiling (see the ‘ghost’ picture!).

Malte Wagenfeld and Thomas Auer explored colour theory, inviting visitors to feel the different properties of air in a bright yellow and muted green space. The Austrian ‘Breath Earth Collective’ were looking to improve the air circulation within large office spaces. They had built a small ‘Graduation Tower’ (an old European technology used to desalinate salt water). Salt water dripped down a woven wall of melaleuca twigs releasing salt and scent into the air – an effect thought healthy and calming. The label recommended spending 20 minutes there and Tommy decided he wanted to do just that. And it was surprisingly nice – I’d like one of them to hand if I was working in an office (I’m lucky that I have the open air to enjoy at the moment!).

We had to get some domestic shopping done at the weekend (parts for a toilet, recycling storage etc.) and we managed to make quite a successful day trip out of it – the kids loved hopping on and off unfamiliar trams and exploring the aisles of Bunnings, and selecting their own trays of lunch in the Ikea cafeteria! They are obsessed with making patterns with Ikea packs of iron-together plastic beads at the moment – it is an activity that keeps them quiet for long periods (but is so horrible for the environment).

I went to see a new film by US photographer/film-maker Lauren Greenfield, who has, for the last 25 years, focussed her lens on the excesses of new wealth. Her 2012 documentary ‘The Queen of Versailles’ was an insightful study of the obscenely rich Siegel family, who were building America’s ‘most expensive house’ at the time of the 2008 financial crash. Her new movie ‘Generation Wealth’, was a more free-wheeling affair, reflecting on her career and revisiting some of the particularly troubled individuals whose lives she had documented in her photo-journalism (it was all a bit ‘Louis Theroux’!). There was the porn star, the toddler-beauty-pageant mum, the plastic-surgery-addict, celebrity-children who had no idea how to live a normal life, and an apparently remorseful hedge-fund manager. Their stories were sad but familiar, and a few pundits reflected on the end times, but there was no coherent message, and it felt rather self-indulgent. Disappointing.

I took Tommy to a play-centre birthday party on Sunday morning. There were 30+ kids there and most of their parents! But it wasn’t as chaotic as it could have been, and it was nice to see Tommy so happy and confident – he rarely felt the need to come and check in with me (a big contrast to another similar event less than 6 months ago).

In the afternoon I went to see a new German documentary entitled ‘The Cleaners’. It looked at shadowy world of the social media ‘content moderators’ – the huge teams of young Filipinos secretly siloed in shiny Manila glass towers, tasked with deleting questionable material from the global social media networks (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube). It was the type of eye-opening documentary that everyone should see! Quite apart from the fact that these youngster’s lives are being wrecked by a constant visual diet of torture-porn and paedophilia, there are the global curbs on legitimate criticism/satire, repressive government controls, the re-shaping and deleting of history etc. It was all very frightening and depressing.

Week 315 – sculptures by the sea

On Tuesday I did my annual volunteering stint at Tommy’s kindergarten. I was one of two parents accompanying a small group of 3 and 4-year-olds (including Tommy) to the Melbourne Museum. There were two staff members too, so I only ever had to keep track of 2 or 3 kids at any one time. We managed not to lose any, even in the school-group-thronged labyrinth of the darkened galleries!

The high points for the kids were the train trip (Tommy proudly announced each station) and the activity-filled children’s gallery, which they had to themselves. The boisterous boys, one dressed as Buzz Lightyear, were climbing and bouncing and running and shrieking. Tommy was one of the quieter ones, but he joined in with the building games. The 3D volcano interactive frightened and intrigued them (it is very loud – and they were disorientated by the 3D glasses!), and they all enjoyed saying ‘yeow’ (i.e. ‘yuck’!) at the giant pickled squid.

In the evening Row and I went out for a meal at a newish local Indian restaurant, with the familiar name of ‘Southall’! The food was excellent, the flavours familiar from happy curry nights in Birmingham and London. Mango lassis were a stand-out, infused with freshly blended fruit, onion bhajis were light and spicy and served with a tamarind chutney, a butter chicken dish was subtle but complex, and a saag paneer tasted just right. It was very exciting to find a decent Indian restaurant in Melbourne at last (just a shame that they charged 4 times more for it than the Hilmarton Tandoori would have done!).

The service was so efficient (not generally a Melbourne strong suit) that we were done in an hour, but we didn’t want to go back home before the kids were asleep! So we went on to a pub in South Melbourne to try and catch a rumoured regular scratch Big Band night. We were in luck, and arrived just as they started to play – a scruffy bunch of male, mainly middle-aged musicians, music stands loaded with charts, pints of beer within easy reach. They favoured cheesy standards – big sax choirs, high trumpets and farting trombones. There were a few classic 1940s tracks (I liked an arrangement of Monk’s ‘Well you needn’t’) and Sinatra ballads (sung by a whispering voiced regular). They made a brave attempt at a Quincy Jones track – they didn’t quite nail it, but there was lots of interesting funky stuff in there!

I’ve recently found another David Lynch fan in Stephanie, a St Kilda mum friend. We’ve both been making our way through his recent autobiography/biography (interesting, but it doesn’t really skewer his dark psyche!), and are keen to get up-to-date on his back catalog. Neither of us had seen his 1992 film ‘Wild at Heart’, and decided to make the most of a child-free Wednesday afternoon to watch it together at Stephanie’s place. Starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as two 1950s love-birds on the run through dangerous rural Texas, pursued by various psychopaths, it was slight and violent, but totally atmospheric (he is a master of sound/music/lighting/set design!).

Maisie was keen to celebrate Halloween but we didn’t fancy gate-crashing a neighbourhood trick-or-treat party or going to the council’s ghoulish money-making attraction ‘Spooktober’. Luckily she was happy enough to don some supermarket-bought ‘Day of the Dead’ stickers for a photo and eat pumpkin soup for tea!

On Friday I was booked into an early morning flight to Sydney. I left the house at 6.30am, looking forward to 3 child-free days enjoying sunshine and art and hanging out with friends. But my flight was cancelled and domestic flights were in chaos, so I didn’t make it to my destination till the mid-afternoon (after one of the bumpiest flights I’ve ever been on – staff were handing out free alcohol to calm everyone down!).

All that was forgotten when I finally made it through the late-afternoon rush-hour crowds to the suburban seaside cove of Tamarama, the start of the annual Sydney ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ trail. The temperature was 37 degrees and everyone was flopping all over the sand (no surfers though – despite the plane-nuisance wind, there were no waves!). There were plenty of people out sculpture-viewing too (or, more accurately, sculpture-posing – there were queues to model in front of the most eye-catching pieces).

There wasn’t anything that you could call great art, but there were some fun ideas, and even some of the most derivative pieces were done well. You can’t go too far wrong with curves of highly polished steel reflecting sea, sun, sand and sky, and lots of sculptors had gone for this easy option!

The pieces that most appealed to me were either fun or quirky, and there were a few pieces that utilized a cliff-top site or the light particularly effectively.

Tamarama beach was crowded with artworks, all randomly plonked down on the sand. At the centre was a large anxious-looking inflatable head complete with diving mask sinking down into the sand (sunbathers sheltered on his shadowy side), and glades of golden and stripy monochrome saplings. On the cliff path heading round the bluff was a lovely turquoise filigree metal sculpture of a wave.

Of the many mirrored entries, most striking were two huge semicircular iron beams emerging from the clifftop grass, their highly polished inner surfaces splitting the sky with light, and making observers shimmer. Another, admittedly rather twee, piece that I liked was a smooth mirrored head with a Pinocchio nose (on which perched three tiny homely bronze figurines).

Of the monumental cast iron pieces, a piece entitled ‘fossil’, which was life-sized replica of an old oil derrick, had quite a presence. And I loved the rust and wiggles and melted shapes of Guardian by Australian sculptor Michael le Grand (pictured).

A rip-off of Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, but nevertheless rather effective, was a great tangled white woollen spider-web woven into a tree. Another clever use of a simple material was a gnarly old tree trunk constructed of white cable ties.

The most popular sculpture was a monstrous giant buddha, serenely enthroned in the stone circle overlooking the sands of Bondi at dramatic Mackenzie’s Point. He was so huge that you could see him from Bondi, half a kilometre away! And the queue to be photographed with him never got any shorter!

A subtler, more interesting piece was sited on a ledge below him. A wind turbine was carved out of sandstone, the lines of colouration glowing pink and gold in the late afternoon sun.

Despite the signs saying otherwise, many of the visitors felt the need to touch/clamber over the sculptures in their quest for the perfect photo! I was surprised that a group of colourful metal and glass crystalline structures had survived as they were taking quite a pummelling!

One of the quirkier pieces was a selection of domestic appliances wedged into sandstone ledges and painted with classic Sydney scenes. I liked a microwave capturing the old Tamarama SLSC sign – it was much nicer than the new paint job which I also passed during the afternoon (see earlier picture!).

The trail ended at Bondi, which was heaving with a Friday afternoon, demob-happy crowd! I got on to a sweaty bus and then caught trains (one modern and air-conditioned, the other old and sticky-plastic-seated) to Marrickville where Cam and Anne-Marie are still living (lucky for me, they are always threatening to head back home to NZ!). Little Sebastian (who is just over a year old) was having a bath on the table as I arrived – he was so cute and chubby and reminded me very much of Tommy at that age!

We caught up on a year’s worth of news while eating fabulous take-away Vietnamese food, sitting out on their classy verandah as the rain clattered on the plastic roof shingles (and the spiders busied themselves overhead, keeping the swirling mozzies at bay!).

The rain cooled the air, and it was pleasantly hot the next day. I spent a chilled morning with Cam and Anne-Marie, playing with Sebastian, who’s at the age when he is delighted by the simplest game! We went out for lunch at a local gastro-pub, and I enjoyed a fantastic dish of som tum salad with crisp lightly fried barramundi. After a visit to the local playground, Cam took Sebastian home for his afternoon nap, and I caught the bus to the Gallery of New South Wales.

The gallery’s current blockbuster is a touring show from the St Petersburg Hermitage. It comprises a small selection of late C19th French avant-garde paintings, works collected (and, indeed, commissioned) by two wealthy Moscow industrialists, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, in the first years of the C20th. They opened their collections to the public where they were seen by (and were to inspire) Russia’s most noted mid-C20th artists (Kandinsky, Malevich etc.).

There were some pretty Monet landscapes, some Cezanne still-lives, and a range of Matisses from all stages in his career (from his early sunflowers, via the lovely shadows of the Jardins de Luxembourg (above) to the primal pared back shapes of his huge blue dancers).

A quieter corner of the gallery was devoted to work by the ‘Symbolists’ – Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis – artists who looked to the inner worlds of dream, fantasy and the subconscious. Denis’ gentle, intimate pictures of mothers and children reminded me of Mary Cassatt (pictured above is his wife and son).

Picasso was represented by several small cubist paintings and collages and the large ‘Woman with a Fan’ (pictured). She had quite a presence!

My favourite picture was an early Kandinsky – ‘Winter’, painted in 1909. The colours were still quite dazzling, and despite being almost abstract, it had a wonderfully mysterious, magical, fairy-tale atmosphere.

There were several interesting contemporary art exhibitions in the other galleries, but I only had time for a quick walk-through! One which would have been fascinating, if I’d had a sizeable chunk of time, was a retrospective of the South African artist William Kentridge, whose dark, satirical, cartoonish art pierces evil political regimes (apartheid, fascism etc.). On a lighter note was an installation by NZ artist Yona Lee, who had made a maze out of the fixtures and fittings you might find on public transport and in public buildings – piping, benches, tensa-barriers etc.

At gallery closing time I caught Sydney’s one and only tram route to Louisa and Jeff’s place in Leichardt. Little Emilia wasn’t well (she hadn’t been all week) and was curled up on mummy’s lap watching Disney’s Cinderella on repeat. After she’d been settled into bed, Louisa and I strolled round the corner to Norton street, which is lined with Italian restaurants. We picked a busy one, and enjoyed homely traditional fare –  mountains of pasta and rocket salad, and delicious whitebait fritters. We were still sitting there chatting so late (it was just us and the staff having their suppers), that they brought us a huge free slice of yummy tiramisu!

After another night at Cam and Anne-Marie’s I headed over to Leichardt, and Louisa loaded Emilia up in the pram with the plan to take her with us on an afternoon stroll round pretty Balmain. But, despite moments of energy, she still wasn’t right, so Jeff took her home and Louisa and I bought bakery picnic lunches (mine included the most divine gingery custard tart) and did the walk on our own.

Despite being huge (she’s due to give birth in 3 weeks) Louisa had loads of energy! We meandered around the shores of Balmain, peering through the open doors of the millionaires cottages (all immaculate traditional weatherboard at the front, and glass-walled at the back, with unimpeded blue views of the harbour).

Although the monied closely guard their coveted views, there are plenty of little parks (even some empty plots) affording normal people views of boats and the Harbour Bridge. There are fragments of sandy beach with splashing kids, and ricketty jetties busy with fishermen/women. A larger park was centred around a bright green oval where white-clad cricketers played their Sunday afternoon matches in the shadow of the purple jacarandas (I love Sydney at jacaranda time!).

I flew home in the early evening – it was an on-time Qantas flight with no fuss and I had a row to myself – lovely!

Week 314 – Spring sunshine

Neil was the one who managed to enjoy some (real) European culture this week – he spent 2 days at a conference in Barcelona (it took him the same amount of time to get there and back!). Before he left I spent a lovely evening with Lizzie K, her erudite parents and their Italian friend, Firenza, who is the director of NoFit State Circus (whose Melbourne show had closed – having been a great success – a couple of nights previously). There was talk of theatre and literature, music and film, and Firenza turned out to be a great fan of Officium!

Tommy had his hair cut (at his request) on Thursday, and we walked/scooted from the hairdresser’s upstream along the nearby Elwood Canal, which quickly dwindles into the narrow channel of the Elster Creek, a stream that flows from a series of marshy ponds at the centre of Elsternwick Park.

Pretty bungalow gardens line the banks and the air was fragrant with rose blossom and honeysuckle. There were cherry trees sprinkling confetti, native bottle-brush laden with heavy red blooms, and succulents making a carpet of mauve and puce.

We conversed with the swamp-hens and swans, and spotted our first Spring brood of tiny black/brown furry ducklings.

One of Tommy’s and my regular activities is a visit to the Council’s contemporary art gallery. They present new shows every month, and this time, the artists were James Cattell and Salvatori Lolicato, sculptors based in the St Kilda Veg Out Gardens.

Cattell created the ‘fairy garden’ (a child-sized grotto in one corner of the plot, full of miniature plants and fantastical mechanical pieces made of old spoons and shells, clock innards and bells) that both Maisie and Tommy have always loved playing in.

The sculptures he presented in this exhibition were delightful – more ephemeral than we had seen before, intricate sea-themed bricolages with bird skulls and crab claws (which clacked together, much to Tommy’s delight), porcelain doll parts, old photos and glass floats.

Friday and Saturday were punctuated by a couple of birthday parties – Tommy’s best mate Jack’s 4th, which was a morning park picnic, and featured a fabulous Totoro cake (Myomi always astonishes with her creations), and Maisie’s old kinder friend Charlotte’s 7th.

The latter was held at a suburban Ten-Pin Bowling Alley, and Tommy had to join us as I was solo parenting. The journey there was an adventure as it involved rail-replacement buses, but it was worth it, as we all had fun. Parties these days tend to be ‘drop and go’, but it seemed that the parents were keener to bowl than the children, so most of them stayed, and we were there for several hours.

Maisie and Tommy were amongst the few kids who didn’t quickly tire of the activity – they were very determined and competitive!

Neil arrived home on Sunday morning, tired but stimulated. We were all very happy to have him back – the children were more unsettled by his being away than usual, and had needed a lot of reassurance at night. They were constantly asking me how soon he would return (I don’t think it was just to do with the presents – although that is what they always demand of him as soon as he walks in the door!).

I made it out to an early evening film with Emma. Not up to challenging fare on an exhausted Sunday night, we went to see the latest iteration of ‘A star is born’, Bradley Cooper’s contemporary version of the classic tale charting the crossing tangents of a fading superstar and an emerging new talent. It was a film carried by a clutch of vivid and sincere performances (not just by the leads). Cooper, as the ruined rockstar, was surprisingly convincing, and Lady Gaga, as the brilliant young pop protegée, was a natural actor as well as being a bona fide star. Not essential viewing, but entertaining and engaging enough!