Week 277 – pop, folk, classical

Maisie entered her second week of Grade 1 with less enthusiasm than her first. In answer to my question ‘what was the most boring thing today’, her answer was always ‘maths’! And the funniest thing was invariably some educational cartoon they had watched. She also had her first bit of formal homework, which was to make a poster about herself – perfect for grooming the next self-obsessed generation! Another milestone was her first bee sting (I remember mine well!), which occurred when she was just leaving school – it brought staff running, and the school nurse gave us an icepack. It hurt for a couple of hours, but by the next day it had completely disappeared – no swelling or residual pain at all!

Tommy came back from his Tuesday Kinder session excited to tell me about his various unexpected animal encounters. A local pet rabbit had escaped and decided to make the childcare centre’s backyard into his home for the day, and later on, the owner of a new private zoo had randomly popped by with a huge koala on his arm which he let all the kids stroke! On Friday Tommy and I met up with Moko and Liam at Scienceworks and the boys had a great time pushing round wheelbarrows and building glowing towers of perspex blocks. Tommy’s favourite installation was a huge ‘pinball’-type machine in which balls were ferried upwards on a giant screw, and then released in a noisy cascade through various obstacles. He watched it go round and round for hours!

On Tuesday night I went to see ‘Phantom Thread’, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest intense study of unusual personal relationships. Set in a 1950s London fashion house, it was about an eccentric, talented designer and his latest muse, a young Belgian waitress, whose apparently meek nature masks something much darker and more controlling – traits only revealed once her admirer starts to tire of her. It was a strange and atmospheric film – I’m not sure if I liked it, but Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the designer, was very compelling!

On a warm and golden Wednesday evening, Rowena joined me at the Sidney Myer Bowl for the first of the MSO’s series of free summer concerts. The orchestra was led by the lively young Dutch conductor Antony Hermus, who programmed in the first item – a C19th overture by fellow countryman Johan Wagenaar. It was fun, but not particularly memorable. Next up was Bruch’s violin concerto (introduced as ‘the most popular violin concerto in the world’), which I wasn’t familiar with, but I could see the appeal in the lovely melodies of the second movement, and the energetic dance of the finale. The second half of the concert was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. You can’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky – from the electrifying brass chords of the opening, through the restless bumpy strings and lilting, trickling woodwinds of the long first movement (surely an inspiration to Stravinsky), the melancholy, yearning oboe and unison string melodies of the second, the joyful pizzicato of the third and the the building excitement and final kettle-drum-fuelled triumph of the fourth – it was all a joy to listen to!

On Saturday evening I went to a performance put together by my friend Bianca. She has recently become involved in a collaborative project which aims to revive interest in an intriguing Javanese folk instrument called the bundengan. It is a large woven bamboo hood (or small tent), designed originally as a duck-herders sun/rain shelter, but some time back, a bored/ingenious duck-herder decided to modify it so that it could be a musical instrument too. He added several strings (with little bamboo pegs attached that make the reverberations sound like gamelan gongs) and three different-length bamboo ‘tongues’ which are flicked to replicate the sounds of the kendang drum.

In collaboration with bundengan musicians from Wonosobo, Central Java and Javanese Sydney-based puppeteer Jumaadi, Bianca had devised a show to be performed for just 4 people at a time. We were led into a darkened studio and each seated under our own duck-herder’s shelter. Two bundengan players plucked and sang traditional melodies, which were amplified by Bianca’s improvised tuned gamelan-style percussion, all accompanying a wordless shadow-play following a mythological journey from ‘farm to table’ – from the pastoral idyll of ducks in the rice fields, to an exploration of the ‘implications of colonial produce trade’. The (specially made, intricate cardboard-cut) puppets got stranger and more magical as the show went on – people turned into trees, trees into cities, ducks morphed into monstrous ogres etc.

On Sunday it was the St Kilda Festival, when all the local thoroughfares are closed to traffic and instead lined with stages and stalls and flooded with partying people! The weather always tends to the greyer/cooler end of the summer spectrum, and this year was no exception, although it brightened up later in the afternoon.

Our first destination was the kids area, where the musical entertainers included the youthful high-energy day-glo-clad Hi-5, and cute local duo Pevan and Sarah (Pevan is a giant singing tiger – Tommy was in love!). There were also stilt-walking sea-gods blowing bubbles, free cricket-branded hats and fairy wings, and, ever the hit, the cheeky seagulls (who screech and hustle and steal food in a very authentic way!).

We managed to make it to a few of the musical performances, catching the sunny Afro-beat of local band Alarriya, the raucous right-on hip-hop of Perth band POW! Negro, and the impressive jazz-soul vocals of Darwin-based singer Caiti Baker.

We spent quite some time just wandering round, stopping to watch samba dancers, a bout of Capoeira, the Hare Krishna parade (complete with their huge-wagon-wheeled and towering colourful devotional float), some impressive BMX and skateboard tricks, and the extensive costuming procedures of the ‘Team Kraken’ medieval combat troupe (it was proper armour – metal plates, chain-mail, tough studded leather etc.!).

Down on the windy foreshore, we arrived just in time to watch the last two sets of the Victorian Open Beach Volley Ball men’s final. The #3 seeded Aussie team (Tim Dickson & Marcus Ferguson) were playing the #1 seeded Swedish team (Martin Appelgren & Simon Bohman – they are also the Swedish team for the Olympics). It is a fast moving game, and the teams were matching each other point for point. Tommy and Maisie were quite gripped (particularly when the ball sailed out into the watching crowd!). Tommy was cheering for the Aussies, Maisie for the Swedes, until the latter lost the upper hand, at which point she switched allegiance! The home crowd was, of course, thrilled when the Aussies won!

The children were flagging by 4pm, so we headed home. Maisie was so exhausted that she was in bed by 6pm! I headed out to Northcote, to attend another interesting musical event curated by Bianca. It was a ‘listening party’, focussed on the ‘aural archipelago’ blog – a musical archive developed recently by young Java-based ‘DIY ethnomusicologist’ Palmer Keen, who has spent the last few years (in his words) ‘wandering the vast archipelago of Indonesia to find, document, expose and promote little-known traditional musics around the country’.

Palmer presented video highlights from his blog – intricate gong-chime pieces performed by women from the matrilineal Minangkabou ethnic group, furiously fast, loud and complex wedding-band percussion and tuned frame-drum gamelan from Lombok, interlocking frame-drum patterns (with tinny casio keyboard) from Banyuwangi, and curiosities such as the candy-floss seller’s gamelan-tuned dispensing canister (which he both plays music on and serves from) and a poor-man’s busking kendang, made from an old packing case and a few strung inner tubes, which replicated the traditional skin-covered drums surprisingly well. The videos and music were fascinating, as were Palmer’s stories of life in the field!

There were live musical examples too, performed by members of Gamelan DanAnda, and brief talks about other associated projects, including by music conservator Rosie Cook, whose work trying to reconstruct the mouldering ‘bundengan’ in the Monash music archives (collected, in the 1970s, by the ethnomusicologist Margaret Kartomi) gave rise to the Aural Archipelago collaboration and the resulting series of musical events.

The final item was a solo performance of the bundengan – we all (the considerable-sized crowd of us) had to cluster as close to the rustic instrument as possible in order to hear it, as it was only designed to be heard by an audience of one!


Week 276 – big ships

Monday was the last day of Maisie’s school holidays, and the weather hadn’t broken after our sweltering 28° night. We decided to take to the water – and try out the new St Kilda-Williamstown ferry, but when we got to the jetty we found it was cancelled, due to thunderstorms forecast later in the day. The kids were intrigued by the latest cruise-liner docked in Port Melbourne, which we could see in the distance, so I suggested we went and had a closer look. We caught the tram to Station Pier and watched all the passengers embarking and disembarking. They all had huge suitcases, but we learnt that those leaving had only been on a 4-day cruise to Adelaide – most disappointing!

We walked along the smart boardwalk, past the empty-looking luxury-flat developments, and expanses of deserted gravelly beach, with the new super-container-port humming away on the near horizon. It was so hot that the kids soon were drawn to the water – they weren’t bothered that it wasn’t particularly inviting-looking or clean (or even that there were several jellyfish to be avoided)! They splashed in the shallows, dug holes and foraged for shells happily for a couple of hours. I wasn’t sure how we would manage to drag them away, but handily, a short sharp shower drove them into the shade of the ti-tree groves where we ate our picnic.

In the evening Jan babysat, and I went to a hear a concert at the independent ‘La Mama’ theatre up in Carlton. On my way I stopped to listen to a great busking group – 4 saxes, trombone and drum-kit – playing clever, highly-entertaining arrangements of pop/jazz hits. They were all ages and sizes (with a female baritone-sax player) and so reminded me of Sax Pack, the wonderful group that I played in when I was at university! The rain, by this stage in the evening, was fierce, and the foyer area of the theatre was outdoors, roofed only by a flimsy unsealed slab of corrugated plastic, so the anticipation of the waiting crowd was heightened by the mass huddling together! The concert was entitled ‘Homophonic’, and was a celebration of gay Western-art-music composers, from the 1940s onwards.

It was such a diverse and imaginative programme – and each piece was prefaced by a fascinating brief biography of the composer. There were the astringent vocal harmonies of the French composer Claude Vivier (in a piece that foresaw his own death – he was murdered by a prostitute), Lou Harrison’s sonorous ‘Threnody for Carlos Chavez’ for gamelan and viola, and the premiere of a disturbing soundscape for winds, percussion and alarm clock which was inspired by the testimonies of detainees in Manus.

Three vocal works in particular stood out, two of them beautifully performed by singer Judith Dodsworth. The first was ‘Greenhouses’ by the British composer Tansy Davies, an achingly moving setting of words written by the late peace-activist Rachel Corrie. The second was something completely different – a fully staged fragment of a 1970s feminist/comic opera by the Australian composer Moya Henderson. Dodsworth played a woman completing her toilette – moisturizing/plucking/tweezing – as she got ready for a night out with her new man. It was hilarious! The third was ‘Cries from the border’ – NZ composer Jack Body’s stunning meditation (for string quartet and vocalists) on mortality, based on the writings of Walter Benjamin, which was premiered the day before his own death.

Tuesday was Maisie’s first day of term. She was ready to go, and headed off into her new classroom without a backwards glance! Tommy was also happy to go to kindergarten (at last) – waving Jan and I away cheerfully from the window with a ‘have a happy day, see ya later’! Jan and I went to Chadstone to buy stuff for the kids – she was impressed with the size and glitz of Melbourne’s largest shopping mall and I managed to get lost!

On Wednesday Jan and I had some more child-free time, and we cycled/ran down the coast to the Brighton beach huts. It was windy and cool, with the threat of showers out to sea, one of which blasted us at our furthest point – but, this week, it was a novelty to be cold, so we embraced it! The weather had settled down by the evening – it was still and clear, perfect conditions for observing the ‘super blue blood-moon’, which handily rose huge and white outside my bedroom window. The first part of the eclipse (from the first shadow-crescent – which appeared at the bottom right – to totality) took place between 11pm and midnight. When the last diamond-ring flash of white disappeared, the moon took on an eerie rusty red glow which lasted for some time (before I went to sleep!).

We said a sad goodbye to Jan on Thursday morning, and Tommy spent the day relishing being able to spread his extensive train/car/tram/construction games all around the house with no interference from Maisie! After school Maisie wasn’t giving much away – she managed to write a list of all the names of the kids in her class (impressive, as most of them were entirely new to her) but couldn’t tell me much about any of them, or about anything she’d done over the first few days!

On Friday Tommy and I ventured to a new playground up in Port Melbourne, which was sited only a few hundred yards beyond the unprepossessing beach we’d visited earlier in the week (but which we hadn’t spotted that day!). Called the ‘Maritime Cove Community Park’, it combines salvaged and repurposed maritime equipment (including a Crows Nest, channel markers, marine bollards, buoys, ladders and rail lines) with a big tube-slide, countless diggers and scoops and some super-fun water features, including a see-saw which triggers various water sprays. There was also a lovely kaleidoscope and a beautiful highly-polished piece of musical black granite, which Tommy declared sounded like ‘gamelan’!

We pretty much had the place to ourselves, and Tommy was in heaven digging and sifting and pouring sand, and pumping water into troughs and channels. There was the added attraction of the now-fully-operational (and fully automated!) Victoria International Container Terminal which abuts two sides of the playground. We could watch the trucks entering the compound through rows of barriers (Tommy’s most favourite thing), and the cranes (20 or more low square ones, 5 massive towers) lifting the containers and weaving around loading and unloading a ship stacked high – it really was a mechanical ballet, and quite mesmerizing to watch.

As Tommy and I had had such a good time at the playground, we decided to go back with Maisie the following day, and we persuaded Emma, Camille and Harriet to join us too! As it was a Saturday, it was busier, but there was so much to do there were few conflicts! Maisie was most taken with the fountain-triggering see-saw and the various high rope-climbing frames.

The container port was quiet, but there was plenty of Saturday sailing and jet-ski activity to liven the place up, and we went for a stroll along the path alongside the port site, which affords lovely views across the water to the city and down the coast to St Kilda which seems very far away (it is about 9km away – I’ve run it before!). Williamstown, just across the shipping channel, is much closer.

Neil returned from Norway on Sunday morning. The kids were very excited to have Daddy home (they knew that he would bring lots of presents – and he didn’t disappoint!). On his last day in Oslo, the highest temperature reached was -9°! The photos he sent of Lillehammer – sparkling with snow and icicles, wooden houses painted bright warm colours, sledges and reindeer pelts for sale – all seemed so exotic!

We took Maisie down to the skate park to test out her new skateboard, but after one (minor) fall she didn’t want to get back on. Tommy whizzed off on his scooter, and tried to befriend some older trick-scooter boys, with limited success! Neil reckoned he could survive an afternoon of jet-lag/children, so I walked over to the Elsternwick Classic to catch up on a couple of films. The first was ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s beautifully perceptive study of an affectionately tempestuous mother/daughter relationship. Innocent, much-loved Christine (or ‘Lady Bird’ as she insists on being called) is in her last year of Catholic Girls School, in the sunny, sedate Californian town of Sacramento, and is doing her best to rebel, but she’s not too good at it, and simply ends up frustrating herself and everyone around her. I think this’ll be a film for Maisie and I to watch when she is 17!

The second was Australian director Warwick Thornton’s bleak and powerful period “western” ‘Sweet Country’. Set in the wilds of the Northern Territory in the late 1920s, it was about the doomed man-hunt that ensues when an aboriginal stock-holder kills a white settler in self-defence. The narrative was straightforward, but the deftly-sketched characters had complexity, and the film skilfully wove together multiple viewpoints, without shying away from the horrors of colonialism, and the magnificent brutal beauty of the landscape. It was a brilliant, wise, film, and I hope it gets good worldwide distribution.

Week 275 – summer sports

Our final week of the school holidays was jam-packed with activities, including the best of the summer’s elite sports – tennis, cycling and horse-racing! On Monday we went on a day trip with our neighbours (Emma, Camille and Harriet) to the the Melbourne Museum. It was pretty exhausting keeping track of 4 excited kids in a vast suite of galleries with plenty of places to hide, but Emma and I managed a few snatched conversations in the rare moments when all the children were visible! Tommy was particularly taken with pulling the ropes to make the big discs spin (see picture).

Tuesday was our first day at this year’s Australian Open Tennis Championship (which started at the beginning of the previous week). Neil, Jan, Maisie and I went together and the adults took turns to watch the quarter-final matches (in the Rod Laver Arena) and wrangle Maisie (which wasn’t too challenging, as the large kids area featured climbing walls, story-telling and a zip wire).

I was lucky and got to see all three matches! The first was a men’s doubles match, pitting the American (identical twin!) Bryan Brothers against duo Matkowski and Qureshi. There was never any doubt who was in charge of the match – the Bryans dominated the court, and the other pair suffered for only having one strong server. But, as is generally the way with a good doubles match, there were some brilliant quick-fire rallies, often with all four players at the net, and a few deep returns whistling through the gaps into the further corners of the court. I also appreciated the players for their focus and tacit communication – they didn’t disrupt the flow with constant fist-bumps/chats between every single point as many of the doubles players seem to!

Neil and I watched the next match, a women’s singles event featuring the Belgian and Ukrainian athletes Elise Mertens and Elina Svitolina. Svitolina was the (vastly) higher ranked player, but Mertens was on spectacular form – her speed around the court and the accuracy of the placement of her shots was incredible (and a joy to watch), right from the get go. Svitolina fought for a bit in the first set, but in the second set she was just blown away, Mertens winning in 2 sets (6:4, 6:0), in just over an hour.

Our third match of the day was one of the men’s singles quarter-finals. The up-and-coming British player Kyle Edmund faced the number 3 seed, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Jan and I weren’t sure what to expect, having not heard of Edmund prior to this tournament, so we were cautiously hoping for a decent British showing, but without too much confidence! We were wondering whether the Murray-groupies might have switched their allegiance to the new British player, and turned up with their amusing repertoire of chants to entertain the audience, but they weren’t in evidence, and the crowd was pretty subdued to begin with.

Both dressed in neon pink, the players got down to some serious baseline battles early in the match, Edmund in charge for the first few games, Dimitrov surprised he was being made to run around so much. Edmund kept the momentum up sufficiently to win the first set – and we were thrilled to realise that we had two real competitors! There were plenty of edge-of-your-seat rallies, balls just a whisper in/out of the court – both players made full use of their challenges, and there were anxious moments as we waited to see the computer-replay and see how that would change to course of the match. There were break points aplenty – but as many lost as won, and so many games which reached deuce/advantage then sea-sawed back and forth for 10/15 minutes.

Once we reached the 4th set (Edmund 2 sets, Dimitrov 1), over 2 hours into the match, Dimitrov did seem to lose momentum, suffering more and more with his service game, but he was still fighting and (although trailing) matching Edmund game for game. And even at this point, Jan and I hardly dared believe that Edmund could win! The final game was on Dimitrov’s service, and there were two contentious line-calls, which had everyone on the edge of their seats – both were called in Edmund’s favour, and on the announcement of the result of the second one, Edmund became the winner of the match!  In his post-match interview, after almost 3 hours chasing around the court, Edmund was very understated – still seemingly numbed from the match – no whoops and cheers for him! His response to a question about how he was feeling in the final game of the match was ‘I just held my nerve… and prayed that last ball was out’!

On Wednesday, with Tommy in childcare, Jan, Maisie and I made the best of a lovely mild bright morning by going for a girl’s cycle ride/run along the seafront. In the early evening Neil and I headed out to see more tennis – the last of the men’s singles quarter-finals, this one a meeting between the legendary Roger Federer (who I have never seen play live before) and Tomas Berdych (who I watched defeat Nadal in straight sets 3 years ago).

Federer didn’t start strongly, and Berdych made the most of that, powering his returns past his opponent and breaking Federer’s surprisingly shaky service game twice, so it wasn’t long before he was leading 5:2 in the first set. But then Federer started clawing his way back, resorting, at one point to pure gamesmanship (Neil and I didn’t expect this from him)! When he challenged one of Berdych’s serves, the normal ‘Hawkeye’ computer playback malfunctioned, so that the replay couldn’t be viewed. The umpire decided against Federer, who promptly came up to the chair and had a hissy fit for several minutes (see picture). His outburst seemed to fire him up, and he hustled his way to a tie-break (offering his opponent a set point on the way, which the Czech failed to convert) in which he swiftly put paid to Berdych’s challenge, showcasing some vintage nimble moves and pin-sharp shots.

The second set was also unpredictable, Federer’s game coming in and out of focus, and Berdych hanging on in there. Both players were making mistakes, but also coming up with some thrilling rallies, so it was great fun to watch. Towards the end of the second set it seemed that Berdych was losing hope, and Federer was capitalizing on his errors. At the beginning of the third set, Berdych went for a medical time-out, but when he came back out it didn’t seem to have done much for his morale. He kept struggling on, but Federer was in control, and some of his shots were breath-taking. He served for the match, and took it easily (in just over 2 hours). In the interview afterwards he laughed and joked with the interviewer, admitting that he’d needed to vent some frustration in the first set (the umpire bore the brunt of it), and then going on to discuss his clothing range. His trainers were branded with a tiny silhouette of Flinders Street station – he said ‘it’s all about the story’ – he is the brand king!

On Thursday Jan, Maisie, Tommy and I headed over to Albert Park for a picnic lunch, a play in the wooden fortress, and an afternoon of elite cycle racing! The ‘Race Melbourne: Towards Zero’ cycling event pitted teams of elite cyclists from across the world against each other in a race around the (5.5km) Grand Prix track. It appeared to be rather a secret event, as although there were food stalls, bike stalls, bars and screens and a giant climbing wall, there were very few people there (we’d only learnt about it from a poster on a nearby building site wall!).

Maisie dragged us over to the climbing wall, which wasn’t busy, so she and Tommy monopolised it for quite some time (seemingly the amenable helpers were happy to be kept busy!). It was very tall with widely spaced ledges and not really suited to someone of Maisie’s size, let alone Tommy’s, but they didn’t want to give up – and Maisie managed to make it fairly high on her own (Tommy just demanded to be lifted up!).

The women’s race took place in the afternoon, and we were able to sit and watch very close by the starting line, with no fence or barrier between us and the cyclists. The whirr of the wheels and rush of air as they all zoomed past was quite thrilling. Tommy and Maisie were gripped by it – there were 12 laps (a distance of 63km), and, although we had to wait 10 minutes or so between each 20-second appearance of the riders, the kids didn’t want to miss a single lap!

The first motorbike buzzing past would signal their approach, then the police-bike escorts appeared, and the pack of cyclists (there was never a breakaway group, they all stuck together the whole race), followed by a cavalcade of support vehicles strapped up with spare wheels/bicycles etc. (Tommy was as excited by these cars, shouting out all the badges ‘there’s a Subaru!’ etc.)

As we were sitting on the inside of the track, next to the drone-flying team (the kids were fascinated by the drone, playing ‘spot the drone’ games when there weren’t any bikes to watch), we could run across the sports pitches towards the lake to watch the cyclists coming round on the far side – which we did a couple of times.

The end was confusing, no-one was quite sure who made it over the finishing line first! And when the prizes were presented, I didn’t recall having spotted the winning athlete at all! The three winners were given magnums of champagne to spray at each other – which they did with gusto (much to Maisie and Tommy’s delight)!

Neil joined us in the late afternoon, just as the men’s race was about to start. The men had to cycle around the track 22 times – a distance of 116km, which took them 2 and half hours to cover. There was a bit more of a buzz for this one, a few more people lined the railings, and the cyclist’s support teams clustered across the track from us armed with handfuls of plastic bottles full of energy drinks which they waved in the direction of the cyclists for them to grab (at full speed – their success rate in actually managing to pick up a bottle was patchy) as they whipped by in the later laps.

The men were quicker round the track, so the lulls were shorter, and quite early on, a ‘breakaway’ group formed, 4 or 5 riders who were 50 seconds or so ahead of the main ‘peloton’. There were also a couple of crashes (not serious) which shook things up a bit. It was surprisingly compelling, even over such a long stretch of time, and although the kids were tiring (it was very late for them!) they were adamant they didn’t want to leave, cheering on the riders with their plastic clapping hands every time they zoomed by. We hadn’t thought to stay till the end of the race, but it was such a beautiful evening, and the kids were being so pleasant, that we did!

Tommy and Maisie were feral on Friday, after their late night, but happily, as it was Invasion Day, and a bank holiday, and we had 3 adults on-hand, we were able to divide and conquer. Jan and Neil took Tommy out to the RACV car rally and Roulettes-fly-past in town, Maisie and I spent a quiet afternoon making friendship/loom-band bracelets. Our Australian effort was to make a barbecue tea, and then we braced ourselves for the normal onslaught of bad Aussie party music from the neighbouring blocks of apartments. One seemed on the verge of kicking off, but a sudden and prolonged downpour put paid to that, and we had an unusually peaceful night!

On a cloudless blue Saturday, with ever-increasing temperatures to match, we headed over to Caulfield for an afternoon at the horse races. It was quiet at the race course – there were enough shady picnic benches for everyone and a swimming pool in a shipping container (for the premium guests – not us!). Everyone, young and old, had made an effort to dress up, and there were food-trucks serving surf&turf, and champagne by the glass! It made for a very relaxed and pleasant afternoon.

Tommy and Maisie took the racing very seriously. They went and inspected the horses as they paraded round the paddock pre-race, and picked a favourite to cheer for each time (both of them managed to pick a winner – and a week later, Tommy is still playing the part of his pick ‘Cao Cao’!).

There was some unexpected excitement provided by a rogue horse, who managed to leap out of his starting stall without a rider, then ran the whole race (and back) on his own, before the marshals managed to corner him and calm him down. It was interesting to see that there were quite a number of female jockeys – more than I’ve seen at any event before.

Jan and I had more sporting excitement to come, as we had tickets for the Women’s Singles Tennis Final! We arrived at Melbourne Park in the late afternoon, in time to catch the final set of the men’s quad wheelchair singles final. Dylan Alcott, a local star, was playing the US no. 1 seed David Wagner. When we arrived Alcott had gained control of the match and he just kept hitting them past the American, who appeared utterly exhausted. The rules were a little different (players were allowed to return after the second bounce of the ball), and the playing speed was slower, but the players immense strength and manoeuvring skills were impressive to watch. And it was nice to applaud an Aussie champion!

We had a couple of hours to kill before the main event, and took our time touring this year’s facilities. Every year the site is upgraded dramatically – the area that was once full of sponsor bunkers, is now devoted to four classy eating/drinking areas themed round the sites of the four grand slams (we favoured the French rose garden!). The live music stage that used to be tucked behind the main entrance, is now a huge festival-worthy multi-video screen contraption sited in the great raised oval next to the Federation Bells, with its own retinue of food-trucks and Aperol Spritz bars. On stage was the Aussie diva ‘Tina Arena’. She had a great voice, a skilled backing-band, and a lovely line of banter with the adoring crowd. It was just a shame that her repertoire of stirring power ballads got rather samey after a while!

We took our seats in the Rod Laver Arena, just as the Australian Girls Choir was giving a rousing welcome to tennis legend Billie Jean King, who was there to present the trophy to the winning player later on in the evening.  The two finalists were Caroline Wozniacki from Denmark, and Simona Halep from Romania. Wozniacki seemed the more focussed to begin with, serving strongly and placing her shots brilliantly, often right on the line, but Halep was a battler and kept reaching shots which it seemed impossible that she could, and then Wozniacki would return them. Their rallies often extended to 17 or more shots – and many of them would, in a normal match, have been outright winners! There were few games which weren’t an intense battle of wills, and the strength behind the shots was phenomenal. So much of the time they were hitting from far behind the back line.

As the heat and exhaustion took its toll both players invoked their medical privileges. Early in the second set, having lost the first and still trailing, Halep had a medic on checking her blood pressure. The break did her good, and she fought her way into winning the second set. Both players had a 10 minute ‘heat break’ at the start of the 3rd, and Wozniacki, whose serve had dipped alarmingly in the second set (she rarely got a first serve in, and often missed the second too), called in the physio after a few games. A bit of massage and tape seemed to refocus her so that in the last few games of the final set, it really appeared to be a totally balanced match. There was no leading by serve – it almost went completely against serve. Virtually every game went to deuce, and sometimes up to as many as 6 deuces in one game.

When, 2 hours and 49 minutes into the match, Wozniacki suddenly clinched it with a few brilliant consecutive points, it was an incredible feeling! Halep’s supporters, had, from the first, been by far the most vocal, but during the match, the quieter followers of Wozniacki had gradually found their voices and were shouting just as excitably after every point in the final few games.  Just how close the match was, shows in the stats (recorded in the Guardian): ‘Halep hit six aces to Wozniacki’s two, one double fault to Wozniacki’s six, 59% of her first serves in to Wozniacki’s 55% and 40 winners to Wozniacki’s 25. And she lost. Total points tally: Wozniacki 110-108 Halep.’

We were sitting in the prime spot for viewing the presentation ceremony. Wozniacki was sweet and gracious, apologizing to the tearful Halep ‘I… want to congratulate Simona. I know today is a tough day. I’m sorry that I had to win, but I’m sure we’ll have many matches in the future. It was an incredible match, an incredible fight, and again I’m sorry.’, and they smiled at each other warmly.

Saturday’s heat (which made for a gloriously balmy open air evening of tennis – even if it wasn’t so much fun for the players), ramped up on Sunday. I went for a run at 8am, and by the time I got back an hour later, it was already 31°. I had wondered why I was feeling a bit dizzy through the last few kilometres! Neil left for Norway at lunchtime (which was boasting highs of -6°). Jan, Tommy, Maisie and I sweated through an afternoon behind closed blinds at home, and decided to enjoy the air-conditioning of a restaurant for tea. We sent to our local, Figo, and had one of those rare successful meals out with children – they were quiet and well-behaved and ate all the food. The low that night was 28°- it was possibly one of the hottest nights I have ever endured!

Week 274 – Big beats and birthday treats

Much of the week was devoted to house-cleaning and 4th-birthday-party preparations, with a few catch-ups with Maisie’s school-friends in between. On Wednesday Maisie and I went out with her school-friend Neve, her older sister and their mum, Shannon. We went to Scienceworks and the girls had such fun – now they can read they are interested in what the interactive exhibits are actually trying to represent and explain. Even a case full of tiny model vehicles, ships and aircraft, accompanied by informative touch-screen labels, engaged them for quite some time.

Shannon and I decided to treat the girls to a show in the planetarium. We all lay back on fully reclining aircraft-style seats to gaze up into the 360° video-screen domed ceiling, and watched ‘Tycho goes to the moon’, a simple but charming locally-made cartoon about an adventurous dog whose kennel transforms into a spaceship and shuttles him around the stratosphere. Maisie was as gripped as she usually is by any screen-based entertainment. When Tycho flew a bit too close to the sun she got very anxious, but of course his ingenuity saved the day! After the cartoon a presenter guided us round the constellations (recognised by aboriginal and colonial peoples) visible in the January night sky.

Jan (Neil’s mum) arrived with us on Wednesday evening (having spent the prior 2 weeks in Queensland – so she’d already got over her jet-lag!), and we immediately got her on the party-preparation roster. She agreed to lead the cake-making team so, having researched an achievable train-themed cake online, one night she baked the sponge (I was sous-chef), and the next night, she made royal icing in shades of blue and green which she and Neil expertly applied to the cake, adding a licorice bootlace train track.

Thursday and Friday were super-hot days, but we managed them well with a beach morning (until a reported shark sighting drove everyone out of the water!), and a lovely early session at the Children’s Garden. It is usually so busy there but the 43° forecast seemed to have cowed everyone, so Maisie and Tommy were large and in charge and in control of all the water features, spraying water as far and copiously as they could (luckily no-one in the vicinity minded getting wet, such was the intense heat!).

Happily the temperature dropped dramatically on Saturday morning and the weather was perfect for Tommy’s 10am birthday party in the park. There were ten kids plus assorted parents and we had prepared a table full of classic party food (sausage rolls, fairy bread, rainbow jelly etc.) and several party games. Rowena brought along a cricket set, and this proved the biggest attraction of the party – all the dads were only too happy to facilitate a game! The cement-mixer-shaped pinata was also a big hit (no pun intended) and pass-the-parcel went well until the final layer was opened by Liam and Tommy realised that he wasn’t going to win the prize himself!

The train cake was a triumph – Tommy was so thrilled with it! It looked great and tasted delicious, and (after all those hours of preparation) disappeared completely in 10 minutes! All the kids got on so well together it was hard to persuade any of them to leave the park at the end of the party. They all went off in a gang foraging in the bushes and trying to wake the sleeping possums up in the gum trees!

As soon as we’d packed everything away and got our kids home, Neil and I headed out (just the two of us!) to the Sugar Mountain Festival – a one-day electronic music/dance/art festival held on the site of Melbourne’s art college. The site was pretty big, with a couple of the adjacent streets closed. There were 3 stages, some indoors, some out, lots of food trucks, lots of bars (supplying bad drinks – sour Melbourne craft beer and brightly coloured sugary alco-pops) and a couple of art exhibitions. The programme was eclectic – much more so than we were expecting, so there were lots of surprises.

One of the musicians we knew of was ‘Actress’, a former UK footballer who now composes dark minimal electronica. He created eerie minimal loop-based soundscapes, with the odd tantalizing line of sub-bass, which drifted around without any beat or pulse. We thought he might only keep that up for a couple of tracks before pleasing the crowd with some pumping beats – but they never came, and the crowd stayed anyway – it was impressive! Next up, on the same stage, was something completely different – a trio of foil-emergency-blanket-clad dancers evocatively interpreting a traditional song which was live-performed by a Pacific-Island choir (with added astringent electronics). A section where the dancers posed like a many-handed Hindu deity was particularly effective.

Just outside the ‘experimental’ theatre stage, there was an Ibiza-style rave going on – DJs with names such as ‘Love Deluxe’, Eclair Fifi’ and ‘Honey Dijon’ ramped up the house and Brazilian beats all afternoon for a very particular (young, bro-heavy, up-for-it) section of the crowd who didn’t bother with any of the other stages! We peered over a mass of heads squashed in a small gallery to watch some aboriginal women dancing, and a collaborative piece by various female artists of colour, which combined live music (provided by a talented soul singer and clever live-looping multi-tracker) with colourful projections of African textiles and a parade of spectacular flower-strewn Afro hair-styles.

There was more experimental music to follow with a live set from the American electro musician Laurel Halo, who caught my attention early with an atmospheric bell-infused electro-acoustic track. Her second piece was sparse and glitchy with echoey sax chords – it had a skewed jazz feel which I liked. Several tracks in she launched into a series of songs with heavily auto-tuned, vocoded vocal lines with increasingly murky over-reverbed backing samples. After a while these got rather repetitive even when she suddenly beefed them up with a conventional battery of electro beats.

Our penultimate alternative act of the day was the astonishing Justin Shoulder – a highly admired Sydney-based performance artist. He came on stage (electronic sounds rumbling, strobes popping) in a great white spiky inflated bubble costume, his face a hinged white plastic mask with red-LED eyes. He was terrifying and utterly compelling. He lip-synched a scathing narrative on the future of technology and the environment, whilst moving in the most extra-ordinary way – a robot/lizard hybrid! Videos in the background showed chilling footage of sinking cruise-liners. At one point he crouched down, his costume vibrating like a giant jelly. He peeled it off to reveal a spiky red/silver jumpsuit underneath and then he really let loose with his dancing! It was only a 10 minute performance but it was the best 10 minutes of the day!

We headed over to the main stage to hear Jamila Woods (a Chicago-based singer/poet) and her band. She was a lovely performer, rhythmically astute and a warm presence, but her voice was weak. And this was a shame, as her band of musicians (geeky guitarist, cool 5-string-bassist and drummer, v funky female keyboard player) was fantastic. They had a groove which lifted the songs onto a different level – even if soul/nu-jazz wasn’t your thing (it isn’t Neil’s particularly!) you couldn’t fail to be captivated by their consummate musicianship. The bass-lines were particularly awesome!

The final two performances of the day couldn’t have provided a greater contrast. First was Sevdaliza, a fierce Iranian singer, dressed like a Jean-Paul-Gaultier-era Madonna, who growled and spat and wailed her way through a set of existential songs with an attractively sparse, squelchy, dark electronica backing provided by two synth-based musicians. She was also accompanied by her ‘spirit animal’, an incredibly lithe male dancer, who jerked and writhed around the stage with her. It was an arresting performance, but a little went a long way!

Back at the main stage, everyone had gathered to see the headliner – New York rapper Joey Bada$$. His DJ came on first to hype him up, rattling through a series of classic beats with no time to settle in to anything (this is apparently how the millennials like their DJ-ing!). Joey leapt on stage clad in a yellow buoyancy aid and launched into his flow, and the crowd (by this time pretty drunk) were loving it! We weren’t so much, so let them get on with it and headed out.

Neil went home, but I had another gig to go to with my Sydney friend Nicole, who was in town for the Midsumma Festival (the previous night she had performed at a drag king event, which, sadly, I hadn’t been able to attend). It was a drag queen showcase, the theme was ‘divas’ and there were more than 30 acts performing. Even on entering the theatre (a smart venue off Chapel Street which I haven’t been to before) I was overwhelmed by fabulousness! The queens were all in full costume and hanging out in the bar – in voluminous wigs, dramatic makeup and besquinned costumes, and perching on perilous platform stiletto-heels which raised some of them to almost 7ft tall!

The performances were all 5 minutes long and mainly lip-synched to popular hits, but they were wildly varied – in mood, in tone, in confidence, in polish. Some of them were great dancers – a drag king Michael Jackson stood out, as did a frenetic Beyonce, a beautiful wonder-woman-leotarded Bonnie Tyler, and a black-rubber-clad Janet Jackson who came on with a couple of blonde backing dancers. Others were fantastic at emoting – a Barbara Streisand was utterly convincing, an Adele (a friend of Nicole’s) had the singer’s cheeky demeanour down pat. Some were funny – I particularly enjoyed a wry performance of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘I drove all night’ complete with props (her quick-change outfit incorporated a car with steering wheel and horn). Some were endearingly awkward/odd, such as a statuesque Britney who attempted all sorts of dangerous moves and just about pulled them off without injuring herself, and a Marilyn Manson who handed out ‘Trump – no!’ leaflets to the audience. In yet other cases it was all about the costumes – the (3) Supremes came on in blindingly bright gold/red skin-tight sequins, a Conchita Wurst revealed a set of huge wings at the climax of her song. Most striking of all was a hauntingly beautiful Frida Kahlo/Day of the Dead transsexual girl.

Sunday morning provided a brief respite from the weekend’s festivities, but there was more to come after lunch, when I went over to The Local to join Nat, Warren and Pip for a few pre-gig glasses of rosé before we headed down to the St Kilda beach-front to join Michele and Daniel at one of Norman Cook’s (aka Fatboy Slim) legendary seaside parties! He didn’t actually come on for quite some time, but it was a beautiful afternoon and, to keep us occupied, there was a silent disco and some scary fairground rides (I observed as others braved them!) and a couple of support DJs, one of whom, Motez, kept it old-school but funky with enough interesting beats to dance to.

The energy levels went sky-high when (the 54-year-old) Fatboy came on – he leapt onto the stage and didn’t stop smiling and fist pumping and bouncing enthusiastically about for his entire (1.5 hour) set. His mood was infectious – the crowd, which was a mix of ages from mid-50s (reliving their youth) down to early 20s (we weren’t sure why they were there) – jumped happily about as one, it was quite amazing. Musically, Cook stuck to his classic ‘big beats’, but mixed them up with a bit of Brazilian/African drumming and spliced his famous vocal samples (Praise You/Right about Now) into all sorts of unlikely tracks (he came on to Saint-Saens ‘The carnival of the animals’!). He is such a great showman – everyone felt quite elated by the climax of his set, it was only a shame that he didn’t play for longer as it would have been nice to prolong the buzz!

Week 273 – summer fun in the city

It’s been another action-packed holiday week for the children, with two separate visits to the NGV, a run around a luminarium, a circus workshop, a day at the beach, a morning at the swimming pool and several happily noisy home-based playdates with friends.

On Monday we visited ‘Arboria’ by ‘Architects of Air’, a large luminarium which is currently inhabiting most of the cobbled space in Federation Square. We met up with Moko and Liam there, and as soon as we had made it inside the maze of great glowing inflated chambers, the children were off, dashing around as fast as they could.

They rarely stopped moving – there was no time to relax and absorb the different vibrations of the colours – the stifling reds, the cool blues, the calming greens, the splashes of purple and magenta and gold in the long silver/grey corridors. What the kids liked best were the air vents – feeling the rush of the cool inflating air on their cheeks.

Having visited a fair few luminariums in my time, this wasn’t one of the most inventive – there wasn’t the subtlety and flare for colour-mixing that the original Colourscape creators excelled at (these new luminariums are all computer designed) – but there were some impressive big showpiece chambers with Arabic-style ‘stained glass’ panels and others with intricate tree-like branches.

On Tuesday it was Tommy’s first day at 4-year-old Kinder and he wasn’t happy! After I’d managed to tear myself away from his desolate sobbing, I took Maisie to the Triennial Exhibition at the NGV. She was so engaged with the art that we were there for virtually the whole day! We started with Ron Mueck’s great pile of giant skulls, each of which Maisie inspected very carefully – she had noticed the small serial number on each one and wanted to make a count of them all!

The Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s breathtaking collection of crazy evening-wear was also (unsurprisingly) a huge hit – Maisie walked round the display in awe, marvelling at the shimmering gowns and their encrustations of gilt, beads, jewels, and dyed ostrich feathers; the perilous shoes; the flashing gold refractions the shot silks and gauzes gave off under the spotlights, and the woven plastic fronds of an entire ‘glow-in-the-dark’ dress which was meant to conjure up the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

Maisie’s favourite frock looked like a giant gold-wired parachute/jellyfish – the sheer gauzy fabric was printed with Michelangelo’s angels.

I didn’t bother taking Maisie to see most of the video/film works, as the content was mainly either unsuitable for children, or too abstruse, but there was one video piece that both she and Tommy (later in the week) were taken by. It was a silent film, by the artist Yamigami Yukihiro, of a busy road intersection in the Tokyo district of Shinjuku – ghostly crowds of people, whizzing trains, buses, taxis and rubbish trucks, shop lights, glowing billboard ads, the moon rising and setting and the different shades of daylight – all projected onto a very finely-drawn pencil sketch of the scene. It had a gentle beauty to it – a welcome quiet moment in the general noisy crowdedness of the galleries.

Another piece that seemed to slow people down was a darkened mirror-walled room with a floor projection of swirling watery currents. People walked carefully watching their feet interact with the projection – Maisie was mesmerized by the shiny lines of white flowing round her. She also loved the following room – Alexandra Kehayoglou’s invitingly tactile large hand-tufted river-bank rug (based on an aerial view of the Santa Cruz River), which visitors were invited to explore barefoot and to lie down on (and take selfies in the large mirror handily mounted on the ceiling above)!

Yayoi Kusama’s apartment of flowers was the biggest draw of the exhibition (for everyone!) – visitors would queue over and over again to get into the full-sized, fully-furnished, all-white apartment, in order to stick a bright red flower sticker where-ever they liked.

In the month that the exhibition has been on, the flowers have already coated almost everything. Maisie carefully did a full circuit of the space before deciding to put her sticker in the shower cubicle!

One thing I didn’t anticipate was Maisie’s interest in the various chairs on display. We both enjoyed Oki Sato’s ‘Manga chairs’ – a series of impossible shiny metal chairs with extrusions based on the movement and action lines in Manga cartoons. She was also very fascinated by a selection of 3D printed chairs (by the Dutch designer Joris Laarman) – and the accompanying films which showed how they were made. Most of them were formed of a basic printed structure (made of lumpy extruded plastic) which was then coated with polished metal and finished to a very high spec – one was like honeycomb, another like a flowing platinum fishing net. One was designed like a jigsaw – this was Maisie’s favourite!

In addition to all the child-friendly art, there were also plenty of children’s activities on. The children’s galleries had been curated by the Dutch art collective ‘We make carpets’, and the theme was making patterns with simple mass-produced domestic objects. There was a fabulous mural made of kitchen sponges (see picture), and the kids were invited to thread ropes through holes, weave together colourful lengths of swimming noodles, and experiment on the floor with giant tangram blocks. In the stained-glass hall, great tables were set up with drawing and colouring activities – Maisie made a quirky green-heart-designed cuff on which she had to write her dream (she wasn’t very original – she wrote ‘to do art’), and carefully coloured in a lemur.

Having exhausted the Triennial, Maisie was keen to see more art! So we went over to Fed Square and visited the NGV Ian Potter, where she spent an hour quietly paddling in ‘The Pool’, and was fascinated (as Tommy had been on a previous visit) by a large video projection showing a lone man fighting his way through the powerful water-spray of a fire-hose (wielded by 3 hefty firemen).

In the evening Rowena and I went out for a meal and a film. It was great to catch up, but both the meal and the film were rather disappointing! We had spotted a new Mexican restaurant across the road from the Brighton Cinema, and when we went in, it was buzzing and busy and they were keen to tell us that it was their first night. We should have heard the warning bells! An hour after we had arrived (and swiftly ordered our food), with only five minutes to go before the film was due to start, our rather lacklustre burrito plates arrived! Mine was meant to be stuffed with barramundi, prawns and scallops. There was no fish at all, just lots of prawns and one solitary scallop!

The film was ‘Just to be sure’, a popular French release from 2017. It was billed as a comedy about a kindly but frustrated middle-aged bomb disposal expert who discovers, by accident, that he isn’t his father’s son. On his quest for his biological father, alienating his real father on the way, he also manages to accidentally fall in love with his (possible) half-sister. The actors were decent enough but the script was clunky, the pace uneven, and the situations implausible and annoying. All-in-all, very unsatisfying.

On Wednesday I went for a run along the beach promenade and Maisie cycled alongside me. We stopped at some of the exercise benches and she counted reps for me – 50 press-ups, 50 sit-ups etc.! Afterwards we went down to Elwood Beach with her snorkel mask to look for fish amongst the rocks, but, having been excited about the trip, she suddenly lost her snorkelling confidence so we sat on the beach instead, until she spotted someone more fun to play with. She made friends with a mum in the sea with a snorkelling mask on, and attached herself to her and her daughter for most of the afternoon!

On a very hot Thursday the electricity was switched off all day so I had to come up with an outing for the kids, although they were both exhausted from the week so far, and could have done with a low-key day in! Jessica and Jasper were back from their Christmas in Germany and were keen to go the NGV, so we headed there (to make the most of their air-conditioning) again.

This visit was much harder work than my previous two trips to the NGV. The three kids, when together, are very loud and never stop moving! Occasionally, when Maisie and Jasper had hared off with their walkie-talkies (Jasper’s Xmas present), Tommy would take some time to look around properly. He loved the Shinjuku film – insisting on watching the day/night cycle twice through, and was very taken with Hahan Saputru’s great cartoon murals (he loved the one pictured as it had two windsocks in it!).

We went for a coffee at the MPavilion afterwards, and a free children’s circus workshop was just starting in the shade of a nearby tree. Maisie and Tommy were keen to join in, and the trainers were happy to include them, even though most of the kids taking part were a few years older!

The session started off with some acrobatics, and I was amazed to see how well Tommy concentrated and listened and followed instructions! Then there was juggling (Tommy joined a little-kids splinter group where he learned to pass the ball behind his back and balance it on his head!), and after that, tightrope-walking! Both Maisie and Tommy absolutely loved doing that (while holding tightly on to the hand of the trainer of course – although after a while, Maisie was confident enough to manage a few steps on her own before she fell off!).

At the end of the session the tutors got out all sorts of other equipment – hula hoops, spinning plates, diablos, ‘rolla-bollas’, huge skipping ropes etc. and all the accompanying hangers-on could have a go too! I spent a bit of time practising my juggling, and managed 2 complete cycles of 3-ball juggling!

After the dry heat of Thursday, Friday was tropical with heat and constant rain! We headed to MSAC and met up with Sam, Nate and Izzy, and Lizzie K and Rosa for a splash in the wave pool. It was an exhausting outing – Maisie and Tommy excitedly waded out into the water and I had to supervise them constantly. I managed to talk to Sam for about 10 minutes in 2 hours! Maisie and Nate discovered the joys of the giant water slide. Tommy, of course, wanted to go down it too, and (annoyingly) I learned that he was allowed to go down it if he sat on my lap. I got quite bruised on the way down (the side-walls were hard and I was very tense from holding on to Tommy so tightly!), but of course Tommy wanted to go again! After the second run I said no more and he launched into a tantrum – I had to restrain him as he attempted to rush up the stairs again!

It was difficult to persuade the kids to leave the pool (and impossible to simply drag the two large slippery kids out of the water!) but I had the carrot of an afternoon playdate at Myomi’s house, which, happily, was a success! We ate our picnic in the rain in Albert Park then headed over to Balaclava for an afternoon enjoying Christopher and Jack’s mountain of new Christmas toys!

The rain continued on Saturday and we were happy to get a call from Rowena who suggested we spent the day trapped inside her house instead of ours! The four kids – Sebastian and Maisie, Adrian and Tommy get on so well together – although it was noisy afternoon, it was generally a congenial one, with lots of car games, rounds of Uno, marble trap, Pokemon Go and some random cartoons (both My Little Pony and Spongebob Squarepants were hits!). Row was constantly preparing tasty treats, but in a rare food-preparation lull she taught me some basic origami – I made my first paper crane!

On Sunday the sun came out again but we were mainly busy with chores, preparing for Tommy’s birthday the following weekend, and for Nanny Jan’s annual visit (she arrives next Wednesday). In the afternoon I went to a preview of a new film by Australian director Stephan Elliott (best known for ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’). Entitled ‘Swinging Safari’, it was a riotous celebration/send-up of 1970s beach-suburban Aussie culture. In the summer of ’75, while the bored, well-off parents sun-baked and downed goon-bags on the beach, and experimented with key parties and fondues, the (very many) youngsters led their own vividly independent lives, bickering and playing pranks and devising increasingly dangerous games with fire and water (in the service of a Super-8 filmed horror). There was so much going on, and so many lovingly recorded references to foods, fashions and morés of the time, that there was little time for character development. A sweet teen-romance between the only two quiet young souls in the menagerie barely had time to register in the general chaos.

Week 272 – dancing in the New Year

The first day of 2018 was sunny and mild, but we had nothing more remarkable than a day of over-tired kid-wrangling planned. Neil and I both went out for our (separate) runs, and on mine I spotted the actor Guy Pearce with his young son and Game-of-Thrones-actress wife.

We’d been tempted by the Piknic Electronik New Year’s Day party line-up, and found out that there were still a few day tickets left, so Neil sent me off to the box office as soon as it opened to see if I could score one – and I was successful! The festival was tucked away in a funny little corner behind the Sidney Myer Bowl (the temporary corrugated iron ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ has the best spot secured at the moment) but that didn’t bother the ravers who were still partying on from the night before. It’s always great to be in an up-for-it dancing crowd at 4pm in the afternoon!

The Melbourne-based DJ Kiti was first on, with a great set of late 1990s electro classics (she played a whole Underworld track, from beginning to end, and it still got the (young!) crowd going – it took me back to my trip to Glastonbury, when I heard them play live in one of the biggest, scariest crowds I’d ever been part of!). She was followed by the German DJ, Marek Hemman, who played a solid tech-house set which was easy enough to dance to – never boring, but not that inspiring either!

The highlight was a 2-hour set by the Canadian DJ Tiga. There were all sorts of interesting things going on in his mixes, weird comic voice-overs (apparently his own – there was one referencing Radio 4 and bollards), catchy Ibiza-ish vocal hooks, random glitches and samples from everywhere (I could have sworn I spotted some gamelan), all woven in to a very crowd-friendly four-to-the-floor house beat. Occasionally he started to complicate the rhythms, and at one point veered into full-on breakbeat, which got me very excited, but it was quite clear he had lost the crowd. The youngsters (18 to early-30s) didn’t have a clue how to move to the more sophisticated rhythms – so very swiftly, Tiga steered back onto safer ground!

Neil returned to work on 2 January, so Tommy and I were back into our normal week-day routine, but with an added over-dose of Maisie! Doing the weekly grocery shopping with 2 kids (and their stuff plus library books and no car) is quite an under-taking! On Wednesday and Thursday we struck out for destination playgrounds – the Albert Park fortress first (where we spotted Guy Pearce again, this time family-free, discussing business in a South Melbourne cafe), then the Booran Reserve, where the kids went wild for the water-play area, and Tommy astonished me (and himself) by climbing the incredibly high rope-climbing-frame (which is at least the height of a 2-storey building) and sliding down the precipitous slide, not once, but twice!

One successful strategy for distracting Maisie from Tommy-baiting was jigsaw-building. Together we completed a 500-piece black and white underwater scene, which we then spent the following few days colouring in (which should make it much easier next time we attempt it!).

On Friday I went to see Martin McDonagh’s much-talked about new feature (and now Golden-Globe-winning) ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’. It was a fierce, funny, violent neo-western with a brilliantly foul-mouthed uncompromising heroine. Frances McDormand was incredible as the angry grieving mother, determined to hold the local police to account for their failure in making any headway in the case of her murdered daughter, over 12 months after the event. Sam Rockwell, as a dull-witted, hot-headed young cop in thrall of his white-supremacist mother was also fantastic, as was Woody Harrelson, playing an unusually worldly-wise, human, chief of police.

On Saturday we were forecast temperatures of 42 degrees so we were all up early and at the beach by 9am, by which point the gauge was almost up to 30 degrees! These hot days are perfect for being in the sea (when it’s any milder, the sea is far too cold to contemplate spending more than a few minutes in!). We hung out for almost three hours, during which time Maisie and Tommy were mostly in the sea, paddling the length of the shore on their boogie boards. It was easy one way, as the current pushed them along, but on the way back, Tommy couldn’t understand why he wasn’t making any headway, and was, indeed, moving backwards (while Maisie was steaming ahead) – he refused any help, so we reached rather an impasse!

In the afternoon we closed all the windows and blinds and tried to trap what cool air remained inside the house. We fired up the projector and all sat down to watch ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (the Miyasaki animation), and both Maisie and Tommy (despite his professed dislike of any book/film with ‘humans’ in it) were quite entranced by it. Maisie, as is her wont, was generally on the verge of tears when the main character, Kiki, faced any kind of challenge/danger – while Tommy kept cheerfully reassuring her ‘don’t worry, it’ll be alright’! For the next couple of days, Tommy would only answer to the name of ‘JiJi’ (the cat character) and their long-form games were all about witches and bakeries and flying machines.

On Sunday I met up with Bianca, my gamelan friend who has recently moved out of Melbourne to the depths of the countryside, and occasionally has days when she craves the stimulation of city life! We went to the NGV’s newly opened ‘Triennial’ exhibition – an ambitious showcase for all sorts of popular/cutting-edge contemporary art. Three years ago the focus was on Australian artists, this time the artists came from all over the world. There were themes – refugees, the destruction of the natural environment, the joys/terrors of technology – but mainly it was an excuse for a succession of show-stopping huge screen-based works and immersive installations.

The most powerful/disturbing pieces addressed global migration/refugees. There was a wall showing the flickering footage from all the CCTV cameras trained on the Manus prison camp. In the next room a gigantic 3-screen video-piece showed scenes from refugee boats/naval vessels, all filmed in eerie monochrome infra-red. A piece by the US artist Candice Breitz recorded video-testimonies from a number of refugees, which the artist then wrote up as scripts and gave to the actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin to perform. It showed off their skill as actors but also amplified the stories that the refugees themselves told. It was interesting, engaging piece.

Some random works stood out – an experiment by one artist whereby he had passed an electrical charge through various small rings made out of different materials – one made of bone was surrounded by a dense black burn, another made of stag horn had tentacles of lightning haloed around it (bone/hair must have very different conductive properties). A project by the artist Alvaro Catalan working with an Arnhem-land weaving group to create new saleable products had resulted in a beautiful display of delicately constructed ochre-toned grass lampshades which were reflected in pool-like mirrors.

The NGV has several ongoing collaborations with Indonesian artists, one of whom, Hahan Saputro, had devised a room full of jaunty tiles (see picture), life-sized animal-headed super-hero figurines and huge colourful cartoon-like murals, as well as several kid-friendly activities (which Maisie sampled the following week when we visited again). Of the subtler works, I enjoyed a large tapestry by the US artist Pae White, who had replicated the texture/shine of a sheet of crushed silver foil using finely-woven matt mauve, green, white and turquoise threads. I also enjoyed the bold graphic design of several works by Ethiopian artist Ephrem Solomon, who collaged lino-cut board portraits with local newspapers.

In one almost-pitch-black room there was a looming amorphous bobbly mass emitting strange sounds of crowds and choirs. When you got closer you could see that it was made out of hundreds of identical black microphones. It was an intriguing presence. There were many more highly-photographable and immersive experiences to be had (giant skulls, fractal mirrors, a room full of the shiniest, most ornate, high-fashion frocks I’ve ever seen, a crazy full-sized apartment plastered from top to bottom with flower-stickers) – but I will save writing these up for next week’s blog, as I took Maisie to see them all again a couple of days later!

In fact, there was so much to see that, despite having arrived at the gallery at 1.30pm, Bianca and I were herded out at 5pm closing time having not quite managed to make it round everything! We headed up to Chinatown for an early supper and decided to try the restaurant with the longest queue. They took our order while we were still queuing, so once we’d sat down, the food appeared almost immediately! The quality was patchy – a dish of crispy spicy tofu and vegetables was very tasty, and the deep-fried spinach dumplings were great, but a dish of fake duck in crispy pastry was very greasy and chewy and another cold salad dish had a weird caramelized sauce which was too much to take after two mouthfuls!

Afterwards, Bianca headed back to the peninsula, and I went to the Arts Centre to see ‘A simple space’ – a performance by the Adelaide-based circus troupe ‘Gravity and other myths’. The group of seven young acrobats and one musician chose to present a stripped-back show, on a tiny stage, focussing on their incredible strength, balance, trust and playfulness. A handstand sequence had them all falling like skittles but somehow always landing in another’s arms. There were speed-back-flip and strip-skipping competitions and one guy solved a Rubik’s cube while standing on his head (no hands on the floor). There were many inventive 2/3-person human towers and archways, and several graceful sequences of multi-person balances (in one, two people balanced and counter-balanced on the base person while he twisted and turned across the floor). One acrobat could jump phenomenal distances (from standing), which he did from the body of one prone colleague to another (3m+) and then moved it up a notch, performing a dazzling series of increasingly risky leaps from shoulder to shoulder at one-person then two-person height.

All of this was accompanied/heightened by a driving, live musical score (performed on synth and drum-pads). The musician also had an impressive party-piece, playing body percussion, so intricate, fierce and fast that his naked torso and legs were quite red once he’d finished! The finale was quite incredible, and more than a little alarming. The two female acrobats were violently whirled around like skipping ropes, jumped over, tossed through the air, swung/spun round each other – how they managed it all without accident was mystifying – their co-ordination and teamwork was amazing, definitely up there with the best circus I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot!). And at the end the whole audience rose as one to give the troupe a standing ovation!

Week 271 – driving away for Christmas

The week started with Christmas Day! After Skyping hello to our far-away families, we headed down to a quiet Elwood beach to join Michele and her friends for her traditional Christmas breakfast picnic.

It was a mild, bright and breezy day – not hot enough for sea and sand – so we settled on the grassy banks instead for danish pastries and sausage rolls, baked ham and fruit salad and lashings of sparkling wine. The kids made sand pies and kicked balls and ate their weights in chocolate croissants.

We came home to open the many lovely parcels that have been arriving in our letterbox over the last month (containing games, books, craft activities and puzzles), and after ripping the wrapping paper to shreds, the kids spent the rest of the day happily playing with their piles of gifts!

Neil and I had bought both the kids a skateboard – Maisie’s a proper one which we hope she can learn to do tricks on, Tommy’s a simpler model, more of a scooter upgrade, for whizzing around on. Neil and Maisie watched a few you-tube videos demonstrating the basic techniques then spent an hour or so in the car-park putting them into action. Maisie was so confident with her balance – she managed to jump on the board, keep upright and steer down a slight incline within ten minutes.

On Boxing Day Neil went off to the MCG to watch the Test Cricket (his new Aussie tradition!). Maisie, Tommy and I went down to Elwood beach to give their boogie boards a spin (Tommy’s was a Christmas present). It was a hot day, and windy, so the surf was up (as much as it ever is here!).

Tommy confidently waded into the shallow choppy waters with his board, and, on his first attempt, managed to launch himself into a breaking wavelet and lie on the board as it carried him into the beach, without falling off. He never quite recaptured this initial glory, but he kept trying. Both he and Maisie were so excited by the splashing waves (the sea round here is usually flat)!

Maisie wanted to try out her snorkel-mask, but there was too much swirling sand in the water. Instead she contented herself by wearing it whilst building sandcastles! Neil came home with barbecue supplies and we rigged up our balcony electric grill and ate sausages, sweetcorn, vegetable skewers and foil-wrapped hot bananas for tea.

On Wednesday we collected a hire car, a cosy 3-door Hyundai (we never saw a smaller car on the road!) which we had booked for 4 days in order to explore some of the further reaches of Victoria. Our destination on the first day was the Grampians, an extensive range of rugged, forest-clad hills 3.5 hours drive to the north-west of Melbourne. The kids know that when we all get into a car, it generally means many hours of driving (the last time we did this was in New Zealand!) but it didn’t stop them asking how much longer they would be in the car virtually every minute, and being very loud constantly! They were also always ‘hungry’ and ‘thirsty’ (I had endless healthy snacks on hand), but they did manage to amuse themselves with circular games of I-spy and (occasionally) long narrative games involving small plastic animals.

The drive was unspectacular – mainly across vast flat expanses of farmland – but we did spot plenty of farm machinery (which kept Tommy happy – particularly the sight of a combine harvester in action!) and animals, a herd of kangaroos resting in a shady field, and at one point drove through the sleepy hamlet of Moyston which claims to be the ‘birthplace of Aussie Rules football’ [it was where the sport’s inventor, Tom Wills, was born].

The A roads that we were driving on were quiet, but when we arrived at Halls Gap (a little town at the foot of the Grampians) we were suddenly in tourist-central! After we’d procured a map from the tourist office, and narrowly missed being mown down by gormless car-drivers unfamiliar with Australian road conventions, we joined a steady stream of traffic ascending the winding lanes up the rocky escarpments, taking us to a succession of rather wonderful viewpoints.

The first, which we reached by driving right up to the top of the ranges and then all the way down again on the other side, was the Mackenzie Falls. It was a popular spot, the car parks were full and we waded through the crowds to a well-made, railinged footpath through the gum-forest which descended gradually at first then plunged down via narrow stony steps into a steep valley with a succession of waterfalls, the upper levels gently stepped, the lower a spectacular vertical cascade of white spray down black-grey granite cliffs into a deep murky brown pool.

As it was so hot, many of the tourists had disregarded the warnings against swimming – they were all stripping off and plunging in, and posing precariously at the base of the fall for instragram snaps!  Maisie dipped her toes in, as did Tommy, but it was extremely slippery, and when he landed on his bum he was not happy! While he whinged, Maisie sat gazing at the falls for quite some time, entranced.

On our way back up I spotted a tiny sleeping bat (possibly a lesser long-eared bat) hanging on the railings – its body was only about 5cm long!

We drove all the way back up the slopes to the summit of the ‘Zumsteins’ for our next stop. Reeds Lookout afforded a breathtaking view across a vast forested valley, a distant swampy lake and beyond to the several bumpy blue lines of hills on the horizon. It was an amazing scene – not unlike a vista in the Blue Mountains. Even the kids were impressed!

We followed another well-maintained pathway across plateaus of water-riven stone pavement and past piles of pancake-shaped boulders (Maisie thought they looked like elephant skin) and into straggly gum forest, some of it clinging to tall bulging rock formations which brought to mind Hanging Rock. Maisie was fascinated by everything – beetles and flowers and the different colours of the rocks (she collected a whole bag full of pebbles – something I used to do on holiday as a kid!).

At the end of the path was another viewpoint, this one distinctive for the ‘balcony’ rock formations – fingers of cliff jutting out precipitously above the deep valley below. One tourist climbed out onto the lower balcony while we were there – I didn’t want to watch!  We retraced our steps – Tommy running most of the way along the 1km pathway (at the beginning, when he was dawdling, I accused him of being a ‘slowcoach’ and he was so incensed that he determined to be a ‘fastcoach’ all the way back!). And by then it was quite late in the afternoon so we had to embark on the very long return journey to Melbourne (we made it back by 8.30pm!).

The next day, despite a late night, Maisie and Tommy were up early, buzzing around loudly, as usual. We were on the road by 9am, heading towards the Great Ocean Road, to the west of Melbourne. Our stated aim was to see koalas in the wild – and one of the places that you are virtually guaranteed a sighting is along the lane to Cape Otway, It was another 3+ hour drive to get there, but the scenery, once we’d made it into the Otway Forest Park, was very lovely. We emerged from stretches of towering straight-trunked gum forest into areas of gently rolling farmlands, all hedgerows and smallholdings, orchards and diary herds, and fields full of round plastic-wrapped hay bales which felt just like Devon or Dorset. Unfortunately the clouds were low, so we only caught glimpses of it all – but that just made it feel even more like home!

The forest (and the traffic) got more dense as we took the turning into the little lane that runs from the main road to the tip of the Cape Otway peninsula. After we’d rounded a few corners we encountered a cluster of parked cars, their occupants out on the verge peering up into the trees. There were several sleepy koalas perched high up in gumtree clefts. Although they were far away the kids were thrilled to see them!

We followed the road onwards towards the lighthouse, and I was shocked to see large areas of white skeletal dead gums which hadn’t been there on my last visit in 2013. Local environmentalists/conservationists don’t exactly know why the trees here have been dying off so rapidly recently (pollution and lack of natural burn-off are contributing to the problem) but it seems that there may not be any koalas left round there in the near future.

We stopped for lunch at the Cape Otway lighthouse, along with every other day-tripper in the area, and joined a snaking queue slowly making its way up the stairs of the narrow lighthouse tower. Tommy and Maisie were proud to have climbed their first lighthouse, and weren’t phased by the vertiginous drop beyond the very narrow exterior balcony at the top.

Fortunately we weren’t in the cloud, but the light was dull, the white-grey of the sea merging into the white-grey of the sky.  Rain drove us into the cafe (tasteful Christmas bunting, organic food and prints of local shipwrecks on the walls) for warming cups of coffee, and Neil remarked on just how authentically ‘English’ the whole experience was!

On our way back to the main road we encountered another sudden jam of parked cars, and were lucky to see one rather bemused koala who had mistakenly taken a nap on a very low branch of a tree and woken to huge crowds of paparazzi. This inspired him to climb very swiftly to the very top of the tree. It was amazing to see him climb, so surefooted, his great splayed claws anchoring him to the flaking bark.

I was so hoping that the clouds would lift for our afternoon drive along the beautiful coast-hugging stretch of the Great Ocean Road that would take us half of the way back to Melbourne. As we descended into Apollo Bay, sudden shafts of sunlight illuminated the busy little town and the wild stretches of beach – grey/gold sands, green/gold dunes and knobbly fingers of black rock stretching out into the sea – but it was short-lived, and by the time we’d rounded the far side of the bay it was raining. Tommy fell asleep and Maisie complained of being bored and had no interest in looking out of the window!

The rain and gloom did nothing for the scenery – and much of the cascading coastal forest was charred and only slowly regenerating following extensive fires a couple of years ago. All the little towns along the way were chock-a-block with summering families, out on the beach in swimwear or hanging out at pavement cafes despite the unseasonable weather! Lorne, which I remembered as a pleasant, sleepy, hibernating winter town, was utter chaos, with a traffic jam several miles long entering it (from the other direction, thankfully!). We stopped off at calmer Airey’s Inlet where a sudden blasting shower was driving all the optimistic barbecuers inside!

The clouds hadn’t lifted on Friday so we were in for another flat grey 200km+ drive, this time in an easterly direction, into the dairy/power heartlands of Gippsland. We passed a great number of car showrooms on the way which had Tommy shouting with delight! Our destination was the Tarra-Bulga National Park, an area of ancient rainforest.

Not far from there is one of Victoria’s largest open-cast mines, which supplies brown coal to the Loy Yang power station (which provides 17% of the state’s electricity). From a viewpoint on the easternmost edge of the pit we could see across the huge hazy grey/black chasm, the giant mining machines looking as small as insects on the distant cutting face of the mine.

The Tarra-Bulga rainforest park is contained within a small range of hills, which we had to scale in order to get there. On the external slopes were commercial tree plantations – regimented dull rows and blasted areas of recently-cut crops, but once we hit the summit and started our descent we were suddenly in a fairy-tale world of startlingly lush greens – dripping tree-ferns, wizened moss-clad myrtle beeches and towering mountain ashes (the largest form of eucalyptus). I saw the back-end of a koala darting from the road into the bushes.

The sound, when we got out of the car, was magical – a dripping silence punctuated by randomly-pitched tweets and whoops and beeps emitting from the many (mostly hidden) birds darting in the distant canopy. The children loved being in the forest (finally they are old enough to appreciate it – a couple of years ago in New Zealand, they were most definitely not!).

They loved the giant tree-trunks, the writhing root systems (one of which they could climb through), the patterns of the fern-fronds and the tiny seeds underneath them (Maisie), the abundance of sticks to drag and poke with (Tommy!). Maisie found an egg shell and a feather which she held carefully for the whole of the walk and conveyed home safely.

A suspension bridge took us over a carpet of tree-ferns – wonderful for me as they are one of my very favourite plants! We climbed up to a little waterfall and saw a brilliant yellow/crimson caterpillar, and a black cockatoo alighted briefly on a creek-side tree. Another cascade we visited was unusual for being at a 45° angle, the water chasing across a smooth rock-face.

We ate our lunch in one of the prettiest picnic areas I think I’ve ever been in – the little tables were set up in a grove of tree-ferns which glowed a constant brilliant green whether the sky above was murky grey or bright with sunshine. We spent a very happy afternoon amongst the trees and it was quite a jolt to emerge from this verdant primeval cocoon into the bland expanses of commercial agricultural land in the shadow of the huge steaming towers of the power station.

On our final day of touring we took it a little easier, driving through the Yarra Valley to the Healesville Sanctuary, under 2 hours away from Melbourne! The Sanctuary is a branch of the Melbourne Zoo, with a focus on showcasing/preserving/rescuing native animals. There were so many fascinating things to see – both within and without the enclosures (I had one of my best sightings of a superb fairy wren, as we were sitting watching the dingos).

The children were incredibly engaged and we spent a lot of time with all the animals and birds. Maisie and Tommy fed sunflower seeds to a black cockatoo, and we could observe at first hand, the way that she expertly shelled the tiny seed in an instant using her beak and tongue. The kids were also given plastic plates loaded with liquid ‘nectar’ and fruit which they fed to various different types of lorikeet.

In the rainforest aviary we crouched down only centimetres away from a lyrebird who was raking through the earth with his beak searching for wriggling pink earthworms to eat. We were also lucky to get a very close viewing of several pelicans grooming themselves with their preposterously ungainly bills. There were several aviaries full of jewel-bright finches and parrots – and the kids were as wowed by their stunning colours as I was!

The night animals made a big impression too (when we could actually see them – it really was incredibly dark in their building). Tommy’s favourite animal of the day was a small nocturnal leaping mouse. I loved the tiny sugar-gliders and pygmy possums.

The mammals were active too (enjoying, perhaps, a cool, grey day!). The Tasmanian Devils were showing their teeth and darting around in a vicious sort of way, the wombats were fast asleep, apart from a delightful baby who pottered about charming everyone.

A baby kangaroo was skittering around wildly, ignoring its long-suffering parent, and the strange-looking tree kangaroos were exploring their territory (they are in an area that opened a few days before Christmas) and enjoying their new sprinkler system.

The echidnas had just been fed, and were bowling along (they have this unusual side-to-side swinging gait) searching for lost tidbits. Next to their enclosure was a procession of lovely large carved wooden echidnas which the kids enjoyed climbing.

On our way home through the orchards and vineyards of the Yarra Valley, we stopped off to buy local fruit in a lay-by – cherries, figs, strawberries and apples. We also went for tea and cakes at the Oasis bakery – Tommy’s eyes lit up at the sight of a ‘halloumi pie’! Maisie, who generally hates meat, chose lamb skewers!

On Sunday, New Year’s Eve, the car went back to the hire garage. We had driven a total of 1620 kilometres in 4 days (and consequently had to pay a huge excess charge as we were well over our daily km limit!). The kids were over-tired and feral so it was just a case of getting through the day, and breathing a sigh of relief at 7.30pm when they were finally in bed!

It was a rather lovely warm sunny day (annoying – as almost all our road-trip weather had been rubbish). I walked down to Ormond Point to watch the sun set into the sea on the last day of the year, then sat on the slopes of the little beacon hill in a chilly breeze with lots of other families to watch the 9.30pm fireworks being let off in town.

From there, they are only tiny (silent) coloured sparkles on the horizon – most people around me were most disappointed, but I knew what to expect! It was nice to mark the end of the year in some way, as both Neil and I were asleep by the time midnight rolled around!