Week 293 – that which resonates

On Monday Tommy and I went to the Botanical Gardens in the city to look for autumn colours.

We found lemon yellow gingko leaves, copper beeches, scarlet vines and glowing fire-shades of dogwood and maple. We collected just one example of each (at Tommy’s insistence – he was worried we’d have too many to carry!).

Maisie had tasked him up with finding some ‘blue’ leaves, and he brought along one of his blue cars as a measure. He tried very hard to find the closest colour match – and wasn’t far off with a few white-toned succulents and pine needles.

We went on a progressive picnic – each course eaten in a different pavilion, and Tommy was fascinated by the little pleasure punt on the lake – he decided he’d like to go on it for his birthday, and spent some time considering which of his friends might be ‘sensible’ enough to join him.

We walked through his favourite rainforest garden, and spent some time under the tall pines – he loves the native bunya bunyas, and points them out whenever he sees them.

On Tuesday I caught a couple of exhibitions. The first was ‘Unsettlement’ at MUMA (Monash Uni Museum of Art). It was a thoughtful, carefully curated show. The works (which were mainly sculpture and video), explored ‘the ways that power manifests through architecture and the built environment’. Many were political. Two focussed on torture centres – the Iraqi artist, Hiwa K, set out to work towards ‘neutralizing’ the horrors of a now-derelict detention centre in Baghdad by performing solo (and audience-less) flamenco – ‘a duel with his heart’ – in it’s chilling corridors. A London collective ‘Forensic Architecture’, working with Amnesty International, interviewed Syrian survivors of torture, using their memories of sound (they were often kept in complete darkness) to recreate the architecture of the spaces in which they were incarcerated.

Other pieces reflected on colonialism/clashing cultural traditions – Saudi artist Dana Awartani’s attractive video of an intricate Islamic sand sculpture being swept away to reveal quarry tiles); and greedy governments/developers – Javanese artist Aliansyah Caniago’s performance piece was about the razing and redevelopment of a Jakartan shanty-town, and the forced relocation of its residents. He stuffed a boxing bag with demolition rubble and punched it for 8 hours a day, for 10 days in a row.

The US artist Jill Magid protested against a specific example of greed and cultural appropriation in her piece ‘The Barragán archives’. In 1995 the Swiss chairman of the Vitra furniture company bought the iconic Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s professional archive and locked it away in a vault. Very few people have since been allowed to access it, and the company even tightly controls the reproduction of images of the architect’s work. The artist (Magid), with agreement from Barragán’s family, arranged to transform a portion of his ashes into a diamond ring as a symbolic offering to Vitra in her campaign to get the archive returned to Mexico. Pictured is one of her little tin ‘votive horses’.

The second exhibition, at ACCA, was billed as a ‘poetic portrait’ of Mexico City. I was expecting galleries full of energy and anarchy and populous colourful chaos, but it was a strangely lifeless experience. There was a lame sound-piece with a string quartet mimicking street-seller calls, some canvases replicating wall graffiti (nice enough, but hardly original), a dull installation of tangled venetian blinds, some blobby clay sculptures of S&M gear, and some garish female-gaze canvases of strip-clubs (the artist, Chelsea Culprit, also made the neon sign pictured).

There was, at least, Francis Alys’ delightful low-fi video piece following him as he saunters around the bustling streets of Mexico City kicking before him a large block of ice, which (8 hours later – this was an edited version!) turns into a tiny ice-cube (I love this piece – I’ve seen it a few times!). And I was also taken by Abraham Cruzvillegas’ occasionally confronting (old people having sex!) video piece ‘Autoconstrucción’, a fond tribute to his family neighbourhood, the suburb of Colonia Ajusco, where people have built their own improvised houses in the rough rocky volcanic terrain.

That evening I performed in Bianca and Elliott’s concert ‘That which resonates, that which decays’ at the Flinders Lane venue, 45downstairs. In the wide rustic space – stripped wooden floors, with a backdrop of peeling plaster walls and tall darkened windows, our collection of instruments – grand piano, golden-hued double bass, sparkling trumpet, ornately carved red/gold wooden-cased gongs and metallophones, – looked gorgeous glowing in the stage lights. And despite it being a Tuesday night, we had a good (and appreciative) audience.

We were a bit nervous and nothing went quite perfectly, but I think we carried it off! Bianca’s vocal piece ‘I said no’ [see description Week 267!] packed a punch – there was a good second of silence after it finished, and I really enjoyed Bianca, Josh and Elliott’s long-form improvisation, featuring trumpet loops like swarms of bees, woozy bass lines, slick trumpet/bass counterpoints, and gamelan chime carillons underpinning bass and trumpet clicks and grinds. It happened to be Elliott’s 30th birthday, and Bianca had distributed party poppers to the audience which everyone let off at the close of the gig, as she brought in a cake with candles!

On Thursday I went to see ‘Cargo’, a new Aussie zombie movie, starring everyone’s favourite everyman, Martin Freeman! I’d read that it was more than a gore-fest (I’m not sure I would have braved it otherwise!), and it turned out to be quite a touching tale about the strength of love in the most extreme circumstances, with a right-on message about indigenous wisdom. Freeman has (so far) survived the zombie apocalypse, and is blindly heading into the Aussie bush in the hopes of finding a safe place to raise his two-year-old daughter. But danger is everywhere, and when he succumbs to the zombie virus, he has 48 hours left (before he ‘turns’!) to find someone to care for her.

Friday was the first day of winter and we were blessed with a gloriously bright still blue day. Tommy and I trekked over to the Collingwood Children’s Farm, and he was thrilled to re-acquaint himself with all the animals.

We said hello to the many different chickens (all puffed up and huge in the cold!), watched the cow being milked, and spent some time with the dozing baby calf.

We found long grass to feed to the cheeky sheep (so enthusiastic they were almost knocking small children over in their quest for food!) and the gentle guinea pigs.

We enjoyed watching all the birds (many congregate in this picturesque tree-lined bend of the Yarra river). Tommy reckoned the ibis looked like aeroplanes as they descended into the fields. The most exciting attraction, though, was the big red tractor!

At the furthest paddock (where we sought the donkey, in vain!), we bumped into Sam P. and Izzy. It was a lovely surprise – we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, and, happily, Izzy and Tommy (who don’t know each other, and are both often shy with strangers) really hit if off. We had lunch together in the almost-warm sunshine at the farm cafe – beautiful bowls of healthy and super-tasty salad – while the kids made each other giggle (see picture!).

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival started this week, with ‘An Evening with Branford Marsalis’ at the Recital Hall. Marsalis was one of the bright young things in jazz when I started playing the saxophone (he’s 57 now – this makes me feel very old!). As the gig was the first in the festival, there was an extended preamble, including an interesting ‘Welcome to Country’. It was effectively a mini-lecture on a few of the key tenets of indigenous culture, including celebration and the honouring of elders and country. This was followed by a dreadful (Australian) support act – a second-rate Nat King Cole-impersonator with a motley scratch band (it was like a bad episode of ‘The Voice’ – without the entertaining sarky comments!). If I hadn’t been stuck in the middle of a row, I would have walked out. Perhaps most disappointing was the audience, who seemed to be enjoying it (it begged the question – why on earth had they bothered to shell out for tickets for one of the best jazz musicians in the world, when they would have been just has happy with a cheesy lounge band?!).

Fortunately, this was instantly forgotten once Marsalis and his band hit the stage! He explained that he’d been in Melbourne for 12 days (recording a new album – which he said was ‘dreadful’! – at Monash Uni). He’d explored the city and been to a Footy match (he gleefully related that Richmond had ‘killed’ St Kilda!). The band’s opening number was a fierce and crunchy atonal funk thrash composed by bass-player, Eric Revis. The drummer (Justin Faulkner) was like a machine, ramping up the sound and density until it felt like he might explode, but instead he cued a mercurial, but instantly plausible, switch into a completely different groove (I was trying to process it – how did that just happen?!) – it was just one of the many examples of the group’s glorious musicianship.

The second track was a lush, relaxed, Dave-Sanborn-type melody, the musicians subtly subverting the tropes of the genre. This was followed by an impeccably rhythmic 5/4 latin number, which the remarkable pianist, Joey Calderazzo, appeared to dance his way through, rocking on the tips of his toes whilst setting up impossible contrapuntal patterns and delicious extended harmonies. The band played ‘The sunny side of the street’, managing to honour and capture the spirit of Louis Armstrong. I particularly loved a celebratory gospel/latin number, all joyous major chords, full of humour and brilliant rhythmical trades and phrases. It really was a privilege to hear such master musicians at work. I loved the way they could journey so far in their improvisations, the underpinning musical framework only sparsely referenced but so clearly informing every note, their ensemble so effortless that they could turn the mood and speed and timbre of the music on a sixpence.

The sun continued to shine at the weekend. Maisie was invited to a chocolate-making birthday party at the Elwood Sailing Club – a quirky pale yellow and blue 1960s structure right on the beach. During the party Natasha and I hung out on the foreshore, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent our younger kids dashing into the freezing sea! Maisie and I enjoyed a stunning sunset over the distant cranes of the container port as we wended our way back home along the coast path.

There was more jazz that evening. Natalia had kindly offered me a free ticket to a recital given by the American singer Gretchen Parlato. Parlato has a crystal clear, versatile voice that she can bend to any style. At the moment she is exploring latin and samba classics with her unusual blend of musicians (guitar, electric cello and percussion). The group’s foot-tapping rhythms (often in mind-bending time signatures – 13/8 was one of them!) were wonderful – so intricate, light and playful. Parlato cruised effortlessly through tongue-twisting Jobim standards, enchanted everyone with a 5/4 version of the pop/soul classic ‘Sweet Love’, and slipped in a bit of Swingle-singers style Bach, ably accompanied by the mercurial cellist. She sang about the joys and challenges of looking after a small child (her own small blond-haired child rushed into her arms during the final applause), and ended with a rousing self-affirmation number (for us all to join in with) – ‘I am wonderful’! It was a really lovely, upbeat evening – I’d recommend it to anyone!

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Week 292 – bush mechanics and dream deer

Early in the week I went to two more St Kilda Film Festival screenings. The first was another random assortment of recent Aussie shorts. None of the films were amazing, but I liked ‘Last Drinks at Frida’s’ – a bittersweet post-WW2 romance between an indigenous soldier and a speakeasy singer, the wry humour of ‘Monkey Business’ – a tale about a quiet zoo car-park attendant getting his revenge when his lot becomes automated, and was impressed by the classy if derivative ‘The Intentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’, a violent romp about two well-read world-weary criminals.

The second session was a retrospective of the work of Australian film-maker David Batty, known best for his 1998 hit TV series ‘Bush Mechanics’ (and more recently the similarly-themed ‘Black As’) which follows the exploits of an enterprising group of young Aboriginal men as they travel through the red desert in their spectacularly clapped out vehicles (A burst tyre? Just stuff it with spinifex grass – it’ll be right for a few hundred more km!).

Originally from Wollongong, Batty moved to Alice Springs in the 1980s, as a young single dad, and got involved in running AV education workshops for local aboriginal people, training them up to record local news and interest items which were initially distributed on VHS cassettes to remote communities. He was instrumental in setting up the television production unit of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, and directed a number of popular aboriginal-language shows, including ‘Manyu Wana’ – a Warlpiri-language ‘Sesame Street’-style educational programme.

Interviewed by his friend and former collaborator, writer Jim Buckell, Batty had many fascinating stories to tell. He came to be trusted by many aboriginal communities, who were keen to tell him their stories, and he recorded eye-witness accounts of historic events that had previously only ever been told from the colonial perspective (one of these being the 1928 Coniston Massacre). He also filmed important contemporary events, such as the making (in 1996) of the Ngurrara Canvas, a vast painted map of country by the elders of the clans whose territory was within the Great Sandy Desert – this was later used as evidence in their successful land claim.

The weekend was pleasantly mild, and we were treated to a day of brilliant sunshine, perfect for setting off the last of the autumn colours in the park where we attempted to play ball games with the kids (Tommy’s intricate and obscure rule system was impossible to understand though – he spent most of the time getting very loud and frustrated as everything we did was wrong!).

I spent the afternoon rehearsing with Bianca, Josh and Elliott. Their improvisations were fabulous, moody and minimal, but I’m not sure I added much to the texture as I struggled with 5 against 4 and bowing techniques. I’m not the useful musician I once was!

In the evening I went to see last year’s Berlinale Golden Bear award-winner ‘On Body and Soul’, by Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi. It was an odd, but strangely affecting film, about the unlikely connection between two lonely souls working in an abattoir (we weren’t spared the gory workings of this institution). One was the company director, a watchful, quietly contained older man, the other a hauntingly beautiful but socially awkward young quality inspector. When the employees are interviewed by a psychiatrist following an in-house incident, it transpires that these two share the same dreams (of deer in snowy woods!). But although this draws them together, they struggle to establish a real-life relationship.

On Sunday we caught the train down the coast to Brighton. It is an incredibly monied suburb – although the high street isn’t anything special, the cafes were bustling with svelte groomed parents and designer-clad children.

The residential streets are almost empty of cars (they are hidden underground or behind super-high fences) and lined with immaculate ‘villas’ of every period and style – from ochre-plastered Spanish haciendas to sleek Californian bungalows, to faux-French Regency piles. I liked the huge brick chimneys of one of the older, more unassuming clapboard structures (erected before the neighbourhood became so desirable!).

We walked/cycled/scooted from the Brighton sea baths back along the coast path home. It was harder work than we had hoped it would be – the kids decided to tag-team tantrums! I dream of the (distant) day we can all go out for a nice family walk together!

Week 291 – St Kilda Film Festival

It was a week of dim chilly days – Melbourne can do a very good impression of wintery England! Neil had to take part in a 2 day academic event in a city hotel and they insisted on booking him in to stay the night (despite his journey there being shorter than his usual commute!). He preferred to come home so gave me the room key instead! The room was spacious and warm, with a pretty view over Albert Park, and I made the most of the pool and gym and sauna (I had the sauna to myself – and pushed the heat up to the max!). One of the Aussie TV channels was screening the Eurovision Song Contest (which had taken place the day before) so I got to enjoy all the cheesy folk ballads, earnest rock and retro-electro-pop and some wonderfully extravagant staging (one contestant wore a great billowing gown which doubled as a projection screen) for the first time in years (Terry Wogan, you are sadly missed)!

On Tuesday night Stacey and I went out for a meal at Machi, my favourite local Japanese restaurant. We shared their delicious mixed seafood platter and a tasting dish of all their desserts – which included subtle yuzu-infused cheesecake, black sesame pannacotta and ice-cream, a luscious raspberry sorbet, matcha tea tiramisu and spring rolls stuffed with melted chocolate. It was amazing!

Tommy and I had an unexpectedly lovely Friday, by chance catching up with several mums-group friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. Tommy (who is more fascinated by babies than Maisie ever was) insisted that we popped in to see Michele and 7-week-old Amelie, and she fell asleep on my shoulder – a reminder of one of the happier moments from the early months (she didn’t even wake when I put her down!).

We joined Lou and Rory, and Jules and Lucy, for lunch. Tommy maintains that Rory (who is 4 months younger than him) is one of his best friends, although they haven’t seen each other for a year or so, but they happily picked up where they left off, playing trains and fire engines and racing cars. Lucy, a month younger than Rory, is 2 inches taller than the boys and much more of a character. She was definitely not interested in transport-related games, but fascinated by tiny dolls and doll-houses (something Maisie has never shown any inclination for!). There was plenty of news to catch up on – Lou is about to have an extra storey built on her house, and Jules is at the heart of the Elwood Primary School glitterati (with some racy tales to tell!)!

The annual St Kilda Film Festival (in its 35th iteration) started this week. The core of the programme is ‘Australia’s top 100 short films’ [from the last 12 months], as chosen by film critic Paul Harris, who has directed the festival for the last 20 years. The St Kilda City Hall (at the end of my street) is turned into a cinema for 10 days, so I always try and make it to as many sessions as I can!

On Friday night I went to two sessions. The first was a selection of documentaries. The most interesting were concerned with local film history. ‘The Gladsome Centaur’ was about Lottie Lyell – ‘Australia’s first film star’ – a lively and courageous actress (known for doing all her own, often dangerous, stunts) who appeared in a great number of popular Aussie films in the 1910s and 1920s. But what wasn’t clear, until recently, was the extent of her involvement in these films – she also wrote, directed and edited a great number of them (whilst battling Tuberculosis, the disease that killed her at the age of 34 years). ‘Mister Herschell’ told the fascinating story of Charles Herschel, an Australian film pioneer, who established a film production company in Melbourne in 1915. He set himself up as a distributor for the major overseas newsreel companies, produced and distributed local content, set up the country’s only film processing plant, and even invested in colour film on the eve of the second world war (however the German technicians who came out to help set up the colour studio jumped straight on the first boat back to Europe, so nothing came of this venture!).

The second session was a mixed bag. ‘First Day’ was a soapy but sensitive drama about a young trans girl’s first few days at secondary school, ‘Serial Pest’ was a documentary about a stoical activist who has spent years trying to disrupt the annual ‘duck shoot’ slaughter of Victorian wild ducks.‘Cooee’ was a ‘Mad Max’-style dystopian future drama about four rampaging car-driving girls in a world of VR-ensnared zombies. ‘El Niño’ followed an Argentinian mother and her almost-adult son on a road trip to visit the father he has never met. It was an intriguing, emotional, film, which left many things unexplained – it could easily have been expanded (and perhaps that is the idea!). My favourite was ‘Red Ink’. A young, mentally unstable, man braves his local supermarket in the run-up to Christmas, and gets distressed when he has to queue to buy a packet of crackers. When he loses it, the consequences are terrible. It was an excellent short film – full of suspense, frighteningly real and desperately sad.

On Saturday we popped into the ‘Buddha’s Day Festival’, a Chinese celebration in Fed Square, which gets bigger year by year. New for this year was a whole ‘garden’ of cheerfully garish buddha statues surrounded by pot plants cascading down the wide steps. The kids enjoyed the inflatable baby buddhas (as they always do) and sampled some Malaysian street snacks (Maisie was keen, Tommy not so much).

I enjoyed the evening’s programme of short films very much. ‘For your sins’ was a slick, clever comedy about a young carpenter who seeks the help of a PR agency to publicize an event he is planning (‘for your sins’). On a vaguely similar theme but different in tone was ‘How the light gets in’ about a young single trailer-park mother who wakes one night to find that she is glowing – and when the light continues to pour out of her when the morning comes, she and her two little girls aren’t sure what to do. ‘Baba Desi’ was a charming documentary about a flamboyant activist and ‘wizard’ who lives in the Dandenongs (in a cluttered house surrounded by glorious portraits of himself painted by the many local artists he has inspired!). ‘One night only’ was an affecting tale of a disheartening Grindr encounter, and ‘Skates’ was a slight but wonderfully evocative drama about two shy young kids enduring New Year’s Eve 1979 in a dismal regional roller disco.

On Sunday Lizzie K joined me for a presentation of short films from the Guanajuato film festival. There wasn’t any whimsy here, these Mexican shorts were all pretty dark and bleak and violent, but with unexpected moments of lightness. ‘Luchadora’ was a documentary about a successful female lucha libre star (in a very masculine world) who loves her profession but struggles to get by as a single mother. A couple of brilliantly inventive claymation/puppet animations (‘Hasta los huesos’ and ‘Cerulia’) took us into scary netherworlds populated by day-of-the-dead corpses and demonic dolls. ‘El tiempo pasa’, set in an old people’s home on New Year’s Eve, wrung surprising humour from a drugs mix-up. And ‘El buzo’ (the diver), was a fascinating snapshot of the life of one of the world’s only ‘sewer divers’. In an old-fashioned diving suit (connected to an air-pump by an ‘umbilical cord’) he descends into the murky waters of the Mexican sewers to clear obstructions. The great revelation was that he actually loved his work!

Week 290 – birthdays and parties

On Tuesday Maisie was invited to our neighbour Camille’s after-school 8th birthday party. I helped Emma marshal the ten very excitable guests, who we had to convey from school to her house. They were all blasting party-blowers as loudly as they could – it was (barely) controlled chaos – and a great relief once we’d done the cake and gifts and finally managed to let them loose in the park!

That evening I went to see a film entitled ‘The Party’ (by British director Sally Potter). It was a very different affair – a strangely old-fashioned farce about a toxic dinner party. An ambitious career politician has been made a minister and invites some friends round to her book-lined Islington pad to celebrate. But they all have their own devastating announcements to make – terminal illness, affairs, the impending birth of triplets etc. Unfortunately, despite an enticing-looking cast (Tim Spall, Bruno Ganz, Kristen Scott-Thomas) it was dreadful – it was terribly scripted and didn’t work either as a serious drama or a comedy. The only laughs came courtesy of the musical soundtrack – Tim Spall (the husband) was the evening’s DJ, and his randomly sequenced choices, from reggae to Purcell, wryly underpinned the action.

It was Neil’s birthday on Thursday. Neil wasn’t particularly keen to mark it, but the kids were. They made him a number of birthday cards, and Maisie was very certain of what she wanted to buy him as a present – it was several cans of chick-peas, and she decorated the cans (see picture!).

Tommy and I went to the Melbourne Museum. He was keen to visit his favourite bits – the frogs and stick insects and birds in the nature garden; the dinosaur bones; the spinning wheels and climbing nets in the children’s area – but he also wanted to explore further. We popped into the section on the history of Melbourne and he made a beeline for any transport-related model. Luckily there were lots of them – including several sailing clippers, a large cross-section of a steamship, and a number of trams and trains.

Tommy was very taken with the big stuffed racing horse Phar Lap (a 1930s champion) and excitedly watched the vintage footage of one of Phar Lap’s finest racing victories. And he enjoyed ‘riding’ the St Kilda Luna Park roller-coaster (we sat in an old roller-coaster carriage and looked out at the moving black-and-white view as it would have appeared in the 1930s). He was also fascinated by the great skeleton of the blue whale, and the sad, gory film telling its story (it follows the whole preservation process, from the whale’s death on the beach, to it being installed in the museum).

Later I went to see ‘Breath’, a film adaptation (directed by and also starring Aussie actor Simon Baker) of a novel by Tim Winton. It made a very persuasive case for the unmatchable adrenalin rush and dangerously addictive power of surfing. The story was about the shifting relationships between two lonely young lads keen for adventure, their mysterious older former-surf-champion mentor, and his beautiful but damaged wife. It was a lovely film with a keen sense of place and time, and the ocean surfing scenes, filmed in Western Australia, were stunning.

Winter swept in at the end of the week, with bitter rain-storms and day-time temperatures peaking at 13 degrees. On Friday night I travelled down to Somers, a small town on the south coast of the Mornington Peninsula, to spend an evening and morning rehearsing with Bianca, Josh and Elliott for our upcoming gig.

Bianca and Josh live in a simple half-glass-walled bungalow sheltered by trees (one of which is, apparently, inhabited by a koala!) and heated by a wood-burning stove (there is no mainline gas, not even a postal service, such is their isolation). Although you can’t see the sea, you can hear the waves crashing on the shores nearby (which they do with some force, surging in from the Bass Strait to the south).

We worked on Elliott and Bianca’s pieces till late in the night, and huddled round the stove drinking wine and playing silly card games till much later. And then we were up early in the morning for a bowl of chia porridge and a brisk beach walk before more rehearsal.

The beach was long and wild, dark golden sands strewn with huge sea-stripped tree-trunks, with shallow rock-pools (in a layer of pock-marked rocky pavement which appears and disappears under the constantly shifting sands) and great tide-swirls of dried seaweed. Josh and Bianca often go out sea-kayaking, but the swell was too dangerous that day. Not even the dogs were tempted to dash in!

On Sunday it was Mother’s Day. Maisie and Tommy brought me breakfast in bed and proudly presented me with their gifts. Tommy had threaded some beads on a piece of string (at Kinder), and Maisie had bought me a pretty Japanese-print bag from her school Mother’s Day gift stall. Maisie spent much of the day writing the story of ‘Matilda Phibbs – the baddest girl in school’ (she was ‘one big bad bundle of badness’!).

In the evening I watched ‘Tully’, US director Jason Reitman’s (and writer Diablo Cody’s) well-observed study of post-natal depression(/psychosis). An NY-suburbanite 40-year-old mother of two gives birth to her third child. Having once scoffed at her rich brother’s offer to pay for a night nanny, in sleep-deprived desperation, she starts to think that this is what will save her. And the perfect nanny – calm, glowing, spirited, loving – turns up that very night. Everyone, even her supportive but distracted husband, is astonished by the change in her over the next few weeks (and the baby thrives). But things aren’t what they seem. It was a good film, an acutely perceptive take on motherhood, with a wonderfully alive physical performance from Charlize Theron as the beleaguered mother.

Week 289 – cultural collaborations

It was a week of trips to the library, long plays in the park after school, reading stories and listening to Tommy’s favourite CDs, over and over again (‘I am a mole and I live in a hole’!).

On Tuesday night I went to see the new Aussie documentary ‘Gurrumul’, about Australia’s most revered contemporary Aboriginal singer-songwriter and guitarist (who sadly passed away shortly before the film was released). He was a remarkable musician who bridged traditional and western cultures, keeping his ancestral song-lines alive, whilst also creating his own new songs. Although they were deeply rooted in his culture, and always written in his native indigenous tongue, these songs captivated audiences throughout the world. He was a quiet man, born blind, who preferred not to speak (to westerners anyway), simply communicating through his music. However, he formed an incredibly close bond with a young, white, Australian, musician and record producer and it was their astonishing partnership that helped bring his music to the world. It was an inspiring tale, and a nice documentary, full of the voices of Gurrumul’s family and friends.

On Wednesday night I went to the last night of this year’s Indonesian film festival. It was a rare showing of ‘After the Curfew’, a 1954 classic by the godfather of Indonesian cinema, Usmar Ismail. It was a powerful film – set just after the fight for Indonesian independence, in a city (Bandung) still under curfew due to civil unrest – it was about the anger and disillusionment of the returning soldiers, struggling to adjust back to regular life in a society both complacent and corrupt.

It was a critical film, and was banned by the government soon after it was first released. For years it disappeared, reappearing briefly, in a much deteriorated form, in the 1970s. But a recent grant from a Singaporean Museum, helped get the original reels properly restored and digitized. European interest led to the film being shown at Cannes a few years ago, and now it is firmly back in the the Indonesian movie canon.

On Saturday we all went into town to do a bit of shopping, including buying Maisie her first watch. I’d promised I would get her one when she learnt to tell the time, and with Lizzie’s help during her recent visit, Maisie cracked it! She chose one with planets and stars and sparkles (Space is her favourite subject at the moment, along with crystals and rocks).

In the late afternoon I went over to the Thornbury gamelan studio to rehearse with Bianca in preparation for a forthcoming gig at a little independent arts space in the city. She and a friend have composed a number of new pieces combining western and gamelan instruments, and I will be playing Gender in a number of them. I’ll be using a few extended techniques that I haven’t tried before (bowing, using various implements to strike the keys) and will have to improvise – so, lots of new challenges for me!

In the evening Bianca and I went to a gig at 45 Downstairs (the same venue, as it happens, as we will be performing in). It was Adam Simmon’s latest project ‘The Calling’. Adam is a wonderful, indefatigable, local multi-instrumentalist and composer, whose ‘Slow Music Festival’, I have performed in several times – I’ve also taken part in a guided improvisation session he led at our last Gamelan DanAnda concert.

This project was a response to his recent ‘calling’ to explore his Singaporean heritage (although his mother is from Singapore, he visited the country for the first time a couple of years ago). It brought together musicians from his Creative Music Ensemble (saxes, brass, 2 double basses and various percussionists), and the Afro-Lankan Drumming System (a pair of Sri Lankan drummers).

The Afro-Lankan drummers set the tone of the evening with a celebratory opening battery duetting double-headed Sri Lankan drums and Afro-Cuban congas. The wind players marched in, sounding like an Indian wedding band, and from then on the tempo rarely dipped (neither did the general noise levels) for the rest of the evening. I enjoyed several ‘train journey’ interludes, with all the percussionists setting up a bumping clattering rhythm, while the wind players mournfully blasted the train horn – it was incredibly evocative – especially combined, as it was, with attractive back-projected footage of Sri Lankan trains speeding through cities and struggling up hills and across rickety bridges.

There were a couple of quieter moments – one a meandering conversation between a vibraphone and a marimba, and some exploratory improvisational pieces, the most intriguing of which featured a dancer, who duetted with Simmons – weaving round him and holding him as he screeched and wailed on soprano sax over the rest of the band’s chaos. It was a fun gig – what it lacked in subtlety it more than made up for in rambunctious energy!

Week 288 – serendipity in Singapore pt 2

On Monday morning I woke refreshed knowing I had three more days of holiday stretching out before me! Row and I were up early and took the metro over to the harbour front – site of the cruise ship terminal and the most southerly tip of the vast container port that stretches for kilometres along the south-western shores of the city.

It is also the starting point of the ‘Southern Ridges’, a pleasant 9km hike through a chain of surprisingly hilly and varied municipal parks and gardens. We entered the forest and within minutes, the traffic and malls and clamour were a world away. A steep set of slippery steps took us up Mount Faber (not really a mountain at 105m above sea level!).

The trees were tall and broad-leaved, the air damp and misty and scented with wood-smoke. There were warnings about monkeys (although we never saw any) and the birds were still heralding the dawn. Through the canopy we caught glimpses of cable cars, glass towers, hazy cranes and wooded islets.

At the summit there were shady pavilions with elegant stone benches, and a changeable lizard came to investigate our breakfast (of various pastel-coloured cakes).

Nearby was the cable car station – we went in to use the facilities (the sign said ‘Peek-a-loo’!), and were astonished at their luxury (all glass and marble and neon perspex, with an aquarium and floor-to-ceiling glass walls and mirrors!).

A winding road led us along to the ‘Henderson Waves’, a 36m high pedestrian bridge linking Mount Faber with Telok Blangah Hill. It is an attractive structure, like the skeleton of a snake (the metal arches) blended with the curved interior of a canoe (the beautifully laid wooden decking).

Telok Blangah Hill Park was popular with joggers (I couldn’t run in that heat!) and local office workers escaping for a breath of air. We loved the Rain Trees with their great umbrella-like canopies (originally from South America, they are planted everywhere in Singapore).

We climbed more steps up to the top of the rather folly-like terraced garden and descended gradually along a wonderful tree-top walkway. Everything around us was so vital and green, trees were woven with creepers, the canopy so dense you couldn’t see the forest floor.

But only a few hundred metres away were great swathes of social housing. The monolithic concrete blocks weren’t unattractive – I was fondest of some of the older brown/cream colour schemes – most of the buildings seemed to be in the process of being re-painted in whites and greys.

We walked through an area of native planting called ‘The singing forest’. It was accurately named – we heard and saw so many birds. Three green pigeons crashed around in the branches above our heads, black rocket-tailed drongos clawed their way up the tallest tree trunks, bright yellow black-naped orioles streaked through the clearings.

We stopped for a while by one particularly blossom-laden tree which was attracting plenty of squirrels and birds including black Asian Koels and Ashy tailorbirds (sparrow-sized with a coppery face and a fanned tail).

The trail took us through ‘Hort Park’ which is managed by various local horticultural societies. It featured some imaginative planting and several fun community gardens. We spotted an impressively long stem of baby bananas! I also loved the grove of grey-white-leafed palms in the silver garden.

A small pavilion was hung with old bird-cages – remembering past times when old people would gather together to listen to the songs of their caged birds (Rowena recalled her grandparents doing this).

There were clouds of butterflies in the butterfly garden, including several massive black and yellow ones which I’d never seen before (Giant Swallowtails I think).

After resting up our swollen feet (walking in the tropics has it’s particular challenges!) in the healing garden, we made our way up another long set of steps to the summit of Kentridge Park. It was planted with native forest (we spotted a kapok tree, it’s seed-pods full of downy ‘cotton’) and carpets of ferns.

Through the trees we caught glimpses of the misty ballet of the container port – thousands of cranes endlessly lifting and lowering containers onto laden cargo ships, busy-bee trucks zooming back and forth.

The scale was hard to take in – the Melbourne docks are paltry by comparison!

We stopped for a drink on the most exposed part of the park ridge, and were slightly alarmed by a sudden clap of thunder fairly close by. As we started walking a lightning bolt struck the ground only 20 metres in front of us – we were both looking right at it and the immense immediate crackling blast of thunder was deafening – we both instinctively ducked for cover! Still shaking, we made our way swiftly down to lower ground, and managed to leave the park and make it to a bus stop (the bus came immediately!) before the rain started.

When we arrived back in Chinatown, the downpour hadn’t eased. We went into the nearest covered cafe for noodles and juice (as did everyone who emerged from the station!).

We spotted some pretty Chinese paper-cut pictures on our way back to the hotel, and Row was able to put her bargaining and Mandarin skills to excellent use!

We did a little more mall shopping in the late afternoon, but were disappointed by the dull global brands. We discovered a great basement food court – the longest queue was for plastic-looking burgers with a side of spag bol (no joke!), but I was thrilled to find an Indonesian warung padang – my plate was full of flavours I haven’t tasted since my last trip to Bali (marinaded/fried tempe, mustard greens, spicy long aubergines, crispy fish/peanut salad – all infused with hot chilli).

After tea we headed over to the Gardens by the Bay for the nightly light show – the ‘Sky trees’ pulse with choreographed colours and sparkles as speakers blast out a fast-cut pop classical score.

A raised walkway took us through the Marina Bay Sands hotel and down vertiginous escalators through ‘The Shoppes’ [sic]! At the basement level was a Vegas-style Venetian canal complete with gondoliers.

On the waterfront, with a backdrop of all the night-lit skyscrapers, the laser light/water show had just started. I was prepared for it to be tacky, but it was actually pretty spectacular.

It started with a hypnotic sequence of ever-shifting mandala-type patterns (snowflakes, fans, dragons) projected onto a great sparkling curtain of water droplets…

…and continued with a ‘firework’ display – great vertical jets of pink and green and blue, ending with a chaotic finale of laser-lit water spurting at every angle, almost masking the city-scape beyond.

We waited until the crowds had dispersed (absorbed by the mall with its never-closing shops, ’signature restaurants’, vast conference centre and casino)…

…and made our way back to the gardens. They were very quiet – virtually empty save a few courting couples – but we felt entirely safe.

At night this luxuriantly planted, entirely artificial-feeling place is illuminated by thousands of floor-mounted spotlights – and it had a peculiar magic.

Lit in odd colours – the huge-leaved shrubs, the great fuzzy martini-glass ‘Sky towers’, the spars of the monstrous cruise-ship of a hotel – all came together in a weird other-worldly vision. And the sound-track was the croaking of a thousand frogs – the murky-looking water channels (ugly in the day-time) were alive with them.

We were in search of the Satay by the Bay hawker centre, and it was much more remote than we expected but eventually an acrid wave of smoke and the roar of extractor fans told us it was near!

The satay vendors were all vying for our business so we ordered a plate of as many variants as we reckoned we could eat after our earlier meal!

Tuesday morning was our last in Chinatown. We enjoyed our final coffee of the trip, and (perhaps fortunately for our waistlines) stumbled across the most exquisite Chinese bakery, only metres away from our hotel.

We sampled their custard tarts and red bean buns, their curry puffs and pork buns. The pastry was so light and buttery – it matched the best French patisserie!

We visited the local wet market, in the dingy concrete basement of the ‘Chinatown complex’. The produce was fantastic – weird and wonderful dead fish, stuffed tofu of every description, great colourful displays of exotic fruit and veg.

There were peanuts freshly pulled from the ground (something neither of us had seen before) and all the variants of spiky green tree-fruit (jackfruit, durian, soursop, breadfruit etc.).

We bought freshly cut jackfruit, pomelo, papaya and longan for lunch.

As we were walking up to ground level we heard a couple of drums starting up – they heralded the start of a lion dance which had been put on specially for a visiting coach party.

The dancers were great, and the locals were enjoying the performance just as much as the tourists.

The two lions led us around the market square, prancing and playing. At one point, one of them started eating oranges – tossing them to onlookers from his mouth, and later carefully segmenting them and spitting out the orange peel (see picture!). A final leap unfurled a welcome banner and a blaze of sparkles.

It was a fitting finale to our stay in Chinatown. The ambience of our last two days in Singapore was to be completely different! We had booked a night in the Marina Bay Sands Hotel – with the express purpose of spending most of our time in the show-stopping 57th floor ‘infinity pool’ (only visitors are allowed to use it – and it’s why most people choose to stay there!).

The hotel has over 2,500 rooms, and the vast cathedral-like foyer was always bustling with ant-trails of people and suitcases. But our check-in clerk was very personable, making jokes about my friendship with the US president (Trump/Crump!) and giving us a free room upgrade (I’m not sure that’s ever happened to me before).

Our room was on a fairly low floor, but as we entered, the curtains opened (as if by magic!) to reveal a beautiful clear view across the verdant treetops (and Sky-tree-tops) of the Gardens by the Bay.

We had a bougainvillaea-fringed balcony, an origami towel-peacock studded with fresh rose petals, and a spacious glass and marble bathroom with an elegant white free-standing porcelain bath-tub.

We got straight into our bathers and navigated our way up to the top floor (a complex operation which involved three different lifts and a walk of shame across the hotel foyer). The sky was grey but the pool and the view were breathtaking even so!

I’m not sure the pool is the highest in the world, but it is the largest. And the width of the top floor ‘tray’ which rests on the top of the three towers, is such that, even being so high, it never feels vertiginous.

There are palms and flowering trees and several substantial restaurants and attractive crazy-paved areas with sun-loungers and the hottest (and most powerful) jacuzzis I’ve ever been in.

These abutted glass screens overlooking the bay – and all the moored cargo ships – a sight that sums up Singapore for me (so many times I’ve transited through its airport and watched those ships twinkling in the night).

Most hotel guests were using the pool for posing purposes (one couple had engaged the official photographer and it was amusing to watch them run through the extensive repertoire of instagram-ready poses) but it was long enough to swim in and the perfect temperature for cooling down, and it was easy to hang by the edge, getting lost in the misty view of towers upon towers rolling away towards the border with Malaysia.

We spent the afternoon relaxing in our room, picnicking on the balcony (in the company of a trio of persistent mynah birds!), and enjoying the opulence of the facilities.

We were faintly alarmed by the fly-past of military planes – there were fighter-jets, chinooks, great cargo planes – one every 5 minutes for several hours. We wondered if there was some military build-up in the region, but concluded (having watched it for 2 days in a row, whilst everyone else ignored it!) that it was just a regular display of military force.

We went for a stroll around the hotel (trying to spot our hotel room from the outside of the building – it is in the photo, just below the foliage!) in the late afternoon. Then we donned our glad-rags for a night out sampling a few of the cocktail offerings at the hotel’s many bars and restaurants.

We’d read about the Tuesday ‘social hour’ – a promise of half-price ‘signature’ cocktails. Unfortunately though, very few of the bar staff seemed keen to honour this official web-published deal (and most of the cocktails were horrible anyway)!

We crammed into to the popular bar at the ‘prow’ of the roof terrace as the sun was setting. It was a noisy, ill-tended and soulless spot, but worth it for the vast panoramic views. Clutching our disgusting cocktails, we watched the smoggy pink haze grey turn slate grey, gradually dimming to a deep blue, at which point the city lights started popping.

The nightly cost of illuminating Singapore must be phenomenal! Every floor of every glass tower was lit up, huge flood-lights bathed the frontages of the colonial buildings in glowing white. Rows of shop-houses along the quays were picked out in greens and pinks.

The Gardens by the Bay looked like a Christmas tree (or perhaps a dazzling distant galaxy) bedecked in silver, purple and blue fairy-lights. And every ship moored in the harbour was a raft of gold. All-in-all it was a crazy, breath-taking sight.

We popped back down to our room to enjoy our own ‘private’ balcony viewing of the Sky-tree light-show, before Bec joined us again for a (mercifully decent) cocktail and a meal.

Having browsed the hotel’s offerings, and winced at the eye-watering prices (and dull menus – Gordon Ramsay’s joint was offering sausages and burgers), we decided on a Thai place. Despite it being painfully over-designed and almost empty, the food was pleasant, and the portions generous. A starter of crispy ginger prawns and coconut wrapped in betel leaves was tasty, as was a caramelized pork dish with broccoli and oyster sauce. Bec, who has lived in Singapore for 7 years, shared all sorts of fascinating insights about life as an expat.

Our restaurant was above the casino – and the building’s architect had decided to present the game-floor as some kind of giant stage. Through a spiralling golden mesh we could look directly down at all the poker-tables (and the slot machines blinking away at the sides) – the intense/desperate energy emanating from them was palpable!

The hotel beds were very comfortable, and we didn’t wake up until 9am the next day. We only had a couple of hours before check-out to make the most of the pool!

It was sunny and clear and everything was in full colour in comparison to the muted tones of the previous day. It was easy to relax, swimming and lounging and getting pummelled by hot watery bubbles, and we only just managed to check out in time!

We spent the afternoon exploring the Gardens by the Bay. It isn’t exactly a beautiful place, but there are some enchanting hidden corners, and the dense planting (and plant-health) is impressive.

There were so many amazing fruits and berries and leaves, and it was easy to find a quiet area to sit and watch and listen to little birds flitting from branch to branch, passing the time of day.

It was all completely litter-free, and the plants were undamaged (it was amazing to walk through a grove of giant bamboos that were completely unscarred – in any other park in the world, they would be covered with the gouged-out initials of bored tourists).

Some of my favourite plants included some unusual varieties of hibiscus…

…a wonderful peepul tree, it’s distinctive identically-sized and shaped leaves rattling in the breeze…

…and a pond full of turtles and glorious cerise lotus blooms.

I thought the dried seed-heads were almost as beautiful as the blooms themselves!

We took a lift up to the ‘Sky-tree’ walkway, enjoying a close-up view of these vast martini-glass-shaped funnels (they are part of the garden’s solar/bio-mass power generating system).

Their bulk is mitigated by their intricate purple-pipe lattice-work structures…

…which are densely entwined with tendrils of bougainvillaea, orchids and succulents.

The city panorama looked pretty too, from inside the garden oasis of glowing greens.

At the foot of one of the Sky trees members of the Rugby 7s were modelling this year’s new kit!

Under a covered walkway there was an exhibition of recent work by the photojournalist Michel Rawicki.

The photos were of remote snow-bound communities and wildlife – an incongruous sight in such a tropical setting, but they were very striking images – I was particularly taken by a shot of two courting Japanese cranes ‘dancing’ and singing – their breath visible in clouds above their beaks.

Also stunning, but sad, were several displays of great hunks of crystalline stalagmites/stalactites, hacked out of ancient caves.

We lunched at Satay by the Bay – eating as much as we could manage. We started with juices (mine combined pink dragon-fruit and soursop) and delicious freshly-made roti canai (pictured – mine was filled with dry curried chicken).

Next up was a big dish of mixed satay (including one type that we couldn’t identify, even after we’d eaten it!), and for dessert we shared a divine bowl of glutinous black and white rice pudding with fresh mango.

It was pretty hard to move after consuming all that food! But we made our way back through the gardens, enjoying more curiosities along en route.

There was a big domed shelter full of little red-mosaic-topped toadstools…

…a charming arbor festooned with brilliant pink hair-like tendrils…

…an unusual topiary garden (see the orangutan pictured!), and last, but not least – Mark Quinn’s arresting sculpture ‘Planet’.

It is a seven-tonne, 9 metre long sculpture of his baby son, which appears to float above the ground (only the edge of one finger brushes the grass!). Despite its immensity it was a peaceful, lifelike presence (I guess it had a particular appeal to two mothers of young boys!).

We headed to the airport early, as Changi is known as one of Singapore’s main attractions! We enjoyed our last blast of tropical heat (infused with jet fumes) in the butterfly garden. In the low rays of the afternoon sun they were frantically sipping their last mouthfuls of nectar.

We said hello to the giant carp (they have grown immensely since I saw them last!), and appreciated some unusual mauve and indigo water-lilies.

We bought fish-skin snacks and green-tea chocolate and ate dishes of curried quail eggs. Too soon it was time to get on our night flight to Melbourne – only 6.5 hours to rest and prepare ourselves for a full normal working weekday!

Bleary-eyed I made it through the next few days in as low-key a manner as possible. On Sunday afternoon Maisie and Tommy were double-booked – both of them were invited to two birthday parties. We decided to honour both invitations by taking one kid to each.

Neil got to escort Tommy to a local community hall, I bagged the more exciting option – a party at the Australian National Aviation Museum. Maisie’s friend Jasper (whose party it was) loves the place, and goes there almost every weekend.

It’s a small operation, run by volunteers (very much like the Tram Museum, a favourite with Maisie and Tommy) – just an old hangar full of a random assortment of civilian and army planes and helicopters. There’s a large section of a Boeing 737 (pictured!), and lots of small planes once used for crop-dusting, by the flying doctors and by the military.

Maisie was the only girl at the party but she was as thrilled by everything as the boys were, operating the computers and levers in the flight simulator, and climbing in every cockpit she could. There was a questionnaire which she enthusiastically filled in, and snappers to play with, piñatas to bash and games of tag to be played. But the lurid yellow, blue and pink ice-cream cake defeated her (she doesn’t have that much of a sweet tooth!).

Week 287 – serendipity in Singapore pt 1

It was a quiet start to the week – Neil was in New York, Maisie was in school and Tommy and I busied ourselves with the usual routines. We went to visit Michele and 3-week-old baby Amelie and I had my first cuddle (she was so warm and snuggly!). Tommy was astounded by how often she did a poo, and for the next few days blamed any bad smells in our house on her!

Neil got back on Thursday and I turned my thoughts to my following day’s trip to Singapore with Rowena! We were booked onto an afternoon flight with Qantas on a huge Airbus, and the staff were very jolly. They fed us constantly and there were ‘sky-bars’ where you could help yourself to snacks and fruit and soft drinks any time – a new flight experience for me! As it was a day-time flight I had the energy to watch stuff and fitted in 3 films – one of them being ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (I recognized a number of the Kakadu sites, and it was surprising how well the whole film had stood the test of time!), the others were ‘Patti Cake$$’, an endearing ‘8-Mile’-style story about an oddball white-trash rapper (she reminded me of Kate Tempest) and ‘Step’, a gritty but inspiring documentary about a dance team at a pioneering girls school in depressed inner-city Baltimore.

We arrived in Singapore in the early evening – it was dark and sultry, and even in the inner city, the scent of (crimson-petalled!) frangipani was heavy in the air. We took the ever-so-efficient subway to Chinatown, and checked in to our hotel, a converted row of old Chinese shop-houses (having said that, our bedroom was in a hidden modern extension, but it was perfectly nice, cool and quiet).

We ventured out to the local hawker centre for something to eat and were almost overwhelmed by the choices – the front of every stall was half-obscured by huge backlit boards emblazoned with garish images of every dish on their menu.

We chose satay sticks and Chinese greens in oyster sauce (it was pretty much the only type of vegetable dish we ever spotted!) and freshly made prawn gyoza – all very tasty. What was, perhaps, more exciting, were the juice stalls. For a couple of dollars the vendors would blend you up any type of exotic juice – soursop, avocado, coconut, sugar cane and lemon, healthy blends of beetroot, carrot and apple! We sampled all of these and more over the next few days! We rounded off the evening with a beer at our hotel’s rooftop bar, enjoying the soft warm night air and the buzz of Friday night office group parties.

We got off to a relaxed start on Saturday with a wander around Chinatown (which, happily, was right on our doorstep). First we popped in to the gloriously gaudy Sri Mariamman Temple (dedicated to the Mother Goddess), built in 1827. It is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and was established by Narayana Pillai, who arrived with Raffles in 1819.

It was a busy, working temple, families dressed in jewel-bright Indian silks were coming in to pray, making offerings of yellow chrysanthemums. Every wall, ceiling and surface was covered with bright paintings, murals, sculptures and tapestries – tiny and huge – portraying the Hindu gods in their various manifestations.

The roofs were particularly spectacular, with gods and monsters crowding around and cascading down the ornate domes.

Close by was a small mosque, very simple, decorated in cool shades of green (even the freshly laundered gowns we had to don to enter were an elegant sage green). The main prayer hall was divided. In the larger, sunnier, section clusters of silent, bored-looking, little boys dressed in white sat round their scripture teachers. Things were much more convivial in the darker, smaller, part of the room where lots of women and girls, clad in black, were quietly chatting and laughing.

The little rows of shop-houses that make up one of the few remaining ‘historic’ parts of the city were festooned with strings of red lanterns, and the buildings sparkled with new paint. It was very pretty but highly sanitized!

There were many tourist-tat stalls and restaurants, travel agents, antiques and ceramic shops, and just the occasional useful shop (such as one selling cooking equipment – I was very taken with their fish and pineapple-shaped jelly moulds!). There were also shops full of paper-made luxury goods for burying with your loved ones.

We joined the queue at a popular local coffee shop for a traditional Singaporean breakfast of black coffee and kaya toast (a white, crustless toast sandwich oozing with butter and coconut jam) dipped in half-cooked egg (yoke and white runny, with a dash of soy sauce). It was a surprisingly tasty combination, and the coffee was fantastic.

Our final temple of the morning was the most spectacular. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is an imposing red and white 5-storey structure, built in the traditional Chinese style (all the visible woodwork was carefully jointed – there were no nails or screws) but only consecrated in 2008.

The ‘Tooth Relic’ itself (it looked like a large cow’s tooth) was housed in a vast, ridiculously ornate solid-gold chamber (no photos were allowed!).

The craftsmanship and luxury in the other spaces was just as astonishing – appropriate perhaps, as the focus of worship, the Buddha Maitreya (the Future Buddha) is also known as the ‘Prosperity Buddha’.

In the main prayer hall everything was red and gold. The walls were lined with exquisite carved, painted and enamelled Buddha statues (100 of them). Above them writhed three-dimensional wooden friezes of entwined dragons. Behind the great golden statue of the Future Buddha was a stunning silk tapestry of flying dragons and bats.

On the top floor of the complex was the ‘ten thousand buddhas pavilion’ (these buddhas, lining every wall, were 1-inch high and made of white plastic – and each had an individual family dedication).

A covered cloister surrounded a surprisingly peaceful garden (with vibrant beds of ferns, palms, orchids, gingers and frangipanis), the outside traffic sounds masked by the sounds of trickling water and bells.

At the centre a raised pavilion housed a giant prayer wheel (apparently the ‘largest cloisonné prayer wheel in the world’!) – each revolution a prayer (marked by the chiming of a tiny bell). I was excited to spot a giant (sadly only 5-legged) grasshopper on a palm leaf – it must have been at least 20cm long.

From the roof we also had a good view of our hotel room (under the curved roof behind the 7/11 sign!).

The temple also boasted an impressive collection of buddhist art (wood carvings, paintings and metalwork) from all over Asia, and a gallery of relics, in crystalline form (most of them looked like tiny beads of murky crystal) – there were bits of Buddha’s brain and gut and lymph nodes etc.!

Back out on the busy lunch-time streets, the air was heating up. My eye was caught by a small stall selling Indonesian sweets. An old man was steaming tiny rice-cakes in joints of bamboo on a hot plate. We bought a box of bright green and toffee-brown pandan-jelly snacks which were dusted with freshly grated coconut. They were so delicious that we’d eaten them all before we had a chance to photograph them (this happened the second time we bought them too – they were the best thing we ate on the trip!).

We were glad of a blast of air-conditioning on a super-clean, fast (and driverless!) subway train before emerging in another old quarter of the city – Little India. The smell of spices greeted us before we hit ground level.

The streets were quiet as we’d hit the hottest part of the day (and seemingly, the greyest), but stall-holders were still hawking enticing-looking condensed-milk sweets, knobbly vegetables and beautiful strung garlands of fresh flowers. Air-conditioned shops showcased ornate sparkling gold jewellery with rubies and emeralds, in the traditional style. In the arcade there were shiny glass wedding bangles and saris and eager teams of henna-tattoo artists.

A solitary Chinese villa had been painted in rainbow colours – it looked rather forlorn though, with a ‘for rent’ sign outside! There were also a number of striking large murals, including one (pictured) which perhaps related to the family of a local trader, others were more generic (showing dancers and Hindu gods).

In a scrubby piece of empty land were a herd of fibre-glass cows (they get everywhere!). And a busy junction was overlooked by four towering elephants – two of them entirely covered with pink and blue plastic flowers.

We descended into the shiny modern depths of the metro (every chamber so vast, it’s like another city under there!) and caught a train to the Botanic Gardens, situated in a smart, leafy ex-pat suburb. Row and I both love plants and there was so much here that was new to us – we were like kids in a toy store!

We didn’t want to miss out on anything so followed the winding routes round all the themed gardens – the bamboos (with their reflexology pathway), the Foliage garden (so many contrasting shapes, colours, sizes and textures)…

…the impressive Evolution Garden (which took you on a fascinating journey through plant-life from ancient to modern times) and the Gingers (I never knew the ‘ginger order’ included bananas, strelitzias, Canna lilies and Heliconia!).

At the centre of the park was the Palm Garden, a large palm-planted sloping lawn leading down to a stage in a lake – it was very popular with picnicking families, even late on a muggy overcast afternoon.

Most people had come to admire (and pose for immaculately-styled selfies in front of) the flamboyant displays of orchids mounted in the courtyard of the National Orchid Garden.

Every year individual garden designers are pitted against each other to see who can come up with the most over-the-top arrangement (well, that appeared to be the brief, given the evidence on show!).

The displays were so spectacular, that after a while we started to suffer from orchid fatigue, and didn’t bother to pay to go in to see the official garden itself!

I have never seen so many different types of orchid, and in such abundance! Once you got past the crazy mismatch of colours in (virtually) every display, the details of the individual flowers were entrancing.

There were delicate sprays of baby pink and yellow, orange and red shooting stars, blooms in every shade of cerise – spotted and striped, mottled and veined.

There was a ballet dancer with a yellow-blossom skirt, and a forest scene complete with soft-toy animals. I was fascinated by the shapes and sizes of the petals – the way they drooped or fanned or twisted or curled – there was so much variation. I’ve included just a few examples here! The bantam rooster (below) was scratching around for food for his sizeable brood – tiny little chicks peeping away in the nearby bushes.

Although we were feeling rather hungry and weary by this stage (it was nearing 6pm) there was still so much more to see in the gardens – and they didn’t close till midnight(!) so we continued on to the frangipani garden. Little metal two-person swings were set up in the shad of the knobbly grey trees – but sadly there were very few flowers (odd as we saw so many flowering frangipanis on the city streets!). The few we found – crimson, pink/gold and white, all had slightly different scents. I liked the pink/gold variant best with its almost peach-like aroma.

Nearby were the expertly tended bonsai, the white swan lake (a novelty for Row!), and the ‘Walk of Giants’ (a wonderful raised tree-canopy walkway, with a section of netting you could lie on and look down through so you could feel like you were actually in the canopy).  As dusk snuck in (the sky was already dark, the light just gradually dwindled), the (mainly) unseen birds peeped and trilled, it was wonderfully melodious. We were excited to spot a crimson sunbird enjoying some late red blossoms. Row was also very taken with the army of little grey squirrels (a familiar pest to me!) that were scampering about, ably leaping from tree to tree.

From the far end of the gardens we had to retrace our steps back to the main entrance to exit, and were surprised to see that a large inflatable cinema screen had popped up, which hadn’t been there earlier. People were gathering with picnics, but there was no information about what was going on. At the point at which we’d given up trying to find some wi-fi to Google it, an official announced a special free screening of the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ to mark Earth Day. She also drew our attention to a nearby pile of recycled carpet squares which the organisers had thoughtfully brought along for people to sit on! We joined the rush and bagged some squares and secured a spot. I went out in search of snacks and stumbled on a fully western Waitrose-branded supermarket (there was nothing Asian to be found at all – the most exotic thing I could find was a packet of Korean-barbecue flavoured crisps!).

The film was introduced by Singapore’s environment minister, who gave a persuasive speech about Singapore’s various admirable environmental initiatives (although we never saw much evidence of these in practice), and the audience was encouraged to sign up to a ‘Green Pledge’ on their phones (before the film everyone was asked to brandish their phone screen to show that they’d done it!).

The documentary was terrifying. A team of journalists, activists and scientists investigated the environmental devastation wrought by ‘disposable’ plastics in the 70 years since they’ve been mass-produced. There were awe-inspiring scenes of blue whales, and horrific footage of dead sea-birds, starved to death, their stomachs bloated with hundreds of fragments of micro-plastics. The oceans are full of plastic debris, which is killing wildlife and toxifying the food-chain (90% of marine birds have toxin-attracting plastic in their stomachs). The bottom line was that every living thing is slowly (or quickly) being poisoned by plastics. There wasn’t much hope (if all plastic manufacture and use stopped right now, there might be) – but they looked a few pioneering recycling schemes, including one that converts non-recyclable plastics into fuel.

We started Sunday with coffee, pandan chiffon cake and red bean buns at our new local cafe, then headed over to the shopping malls of Orchard Street. In the backstreets I spotted some bamboo scaffolding.

We were surprised at the crowds – it was the first time we’d felt the usual crazy bustle of big Asian cities. Rowena’s friend Bec later explained that they were Singapore’s army of ‘helpers’ – the maids/nannies/cooks who work for the expats/middle-class Singaporeans. Sunday is their day off and many of them head to Lucky Plaza to buy sparkly phone covers, colourful t-shirts, soft toys and costume jewellery. We were in the market for that type of stuff too, and spent quite some time poring over cutesy flashing key-rings, crazy magnets and ‘cloisonné’ tooth-pick holders.

Next door was the Tang Plaza (pictured) – a high end department store. In contrast to the low-ceilinged, strip-lit chaos of Lucky Plaza it was very quiet and sedate. We browsed the designer clothes – there were a couple of very classy, well-cut local brands in gorgeous colours (we noticed that all the clothes shops were full of colourful clothing – yellows, greens, pinks, reds).

We met up with Rowena’s college friend Bec, her American husband and beautiful (and immaculately behaved!) 2-year-old daughter at a restaurant on the top floor of the department store. It was hidden behind a bevy of high-end massage/aromatherapy parlours. The prices were pitched at westerners, but the cuisine was local. I enjoyed a plate of noodles with black pepper crab. We drank warm water – apparently this is what the locals ask for (ice drinks are for tourists!).

After lunch Row and I crossed town to the colonial quarter, clustered on the banks of the original bay (extensive land reclamation has now pushed it a kilometre or so further out). We peeped through the door of the 1862-built St Paul’s Cathedral, a blindingly white Gothic wedding cake – and Row was surprised to hear that the service inside was being conducted in Cantonese (which isn’t one of Singapore’s four official languages).

Across the road was the National Gallery of Singapore, housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings. The long and imposing grey-stone colonnaded portico reminded me of the British Museum. From the steps the view was across a cricket oval (where men in whites were playing) to the great cruise-ship-like hulk of the 57-storey Marina Bay Sands hotel (more on this later!).

The spaces inside the art museum were vast but there seemed to be more foyer area than exhibition space! Having said that, the art that we saw was fascinating. A suite of galleries on the top floor was devoted to Chinese ink art and scroll painting. There were three interconnected exhibitions.

The first showcased the work of Singaporean artist Chen Chong Swee (1910-1985), who painted landscapes and local scenes in a style combining aspects of traditional Chinese ink painting and western watercolour.

They were deftly executed and attractively designed images. My favourites included vibrant baskets of local fruits, misty mountains and village scenes of women preparing food and caring for children (I particularly loved the mother carrying her baby).

In the 1950s the artist had travelled to Bali and started enthusiastically painting the ‘exotic’ dancers. I liked his choice of wax relief to portray them (inspired by the batik fabrics that they would have worn).

The next exhibition featured a selection of works from the Xiu Hai Lou Collection, the largest private collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy in Singapore. It had been assembled from the 1950s to the 1990s, and encompassed works dating from the C17th to the C20th.

There were so many beautiful images – I could have taken any of them home with me! I photographed just a few of my favourites, including a detail of Gui Zhuang’s ‘bamboo and cursive script calligraphy’ (1667). He was an artist known for his ‘wild cursive’ style, wide knowledge, poetry, prose and songs.

‘The scent of flowers and singing of birds’ by Ren Xun (1868), was from the artist’s middle period. The work integrates fine brush and freehand styles with the ‘boneless technique’ where forms are made using ink and colour washes rather than outlines.

Also pictured is a branch laden with chrysanthemums (‘Autumn Indulgence’) by Pan Tianshou (1960s). He is regarded as one of the most important traditional Chinese painters of the C20th, known for his unusual approach which ‘emphasizes structure through line strokes and tension in the composition’.

The third of the linked exhibitions was devoted to the paintings of the C20th Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong. Although he learned traditional techniques, he was inspired by western modernist landscape art. He travelled widely across China in his lifetime, drawing inspiration from the rivers, mountains and towns that he encountered. I was very taken with both his ink and oil paintings. Pictured are ‘Jiangnan’ (ink) and ‘Red Lanterns’ (oil).

We had a look at the small selection of contemporary art – most intriguing was Matthew Ngui’s optical illusion chair (the fragments only appearing as one whole when you stood in a certain spot and looked at a certain angle). One gallery label, entitled ‘After Performance’, noted that performance art has been banned in Singapore since 1994, when the artist Joseph Ng dared to create an art piece comment on the arrest of 12 homosexual sex-workers.

Closing time was approaching by this point so we whisked through the rest of the collection. There was an interesting section on a group of woodblock artists, active in the early C20th, whose detailed depictions of working people and every-day scenes often contained socio-political undertones (pictured is Lim Mu Hue’s image of a Chinese Puppet Theatre).

There was a group of elegant paintings by Georgette Chen (pictured is a self-portrait from 1946), a Singaporean artist brought up in the US and trained in France, who moved back to Singapore after her Chinese diplomat husband died in Shanghai during WW2.  There were also a surprising amount of pictures of Bali – it seems that Singaporean artists were as bewitched by the place as westerners, and did their bit to re-imagine, re-construct and project the region in the mid C20th.

Sated with art, we caught the lift up to ‘Smoke and Mirrors’(!), the gallery’s rooftop bar.

It was a classy joint (and the smartest place we went to) with comfy sofas, subtle lighting, low music, well-made cocktails and a wonderful panorama taking in the towers of the CBD, the scaly white domes of the Concert Hall and the glass skyscrapers of the Marina Bay Sands complex.

As the light faded from the sky (I couldn’t really call it a sunset) the city started twinkling. At 8pm the nightly laser-light-fountain show started at the Marina Bay Sands – searchlights beamed from the roof of the hotel which was bathed in purple and silver and orange. Ripples of colour flickered across the arched roofs of the waterfront shopping mall.

After we’d eked out our expensive cocktails for as long as we could (the bar staff seemed to expect that, they seemed very chilled!) we decided to walk over to ‘Gluttons Bay’ for supper. Our walk took us down into an underpass which traversed an underground car-park and emerged into the bowels of the Concert Hall. I noticed posters up for a festival of Sacred Music which was taking place that weekend. We’d missed all the concerts (which were free) apart from the very final one, a performance by the Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu, which was due to start half an hour later.

We decided to ignore our rumbling tummies (a pack of salted-egg-yolk flavoured crisps and a green-tea KitKat didn’t help matters much!) and bag a couple of seats in the rapidly filling auditorium of the outdoor stage. The musicians came on resplendent in their traditional padded embroidered silk gowns – perfect for the chilly steppes (Tuva is on the Siberian/Mongolian borders), but they must have been stifling in the tropical heat!

Their songs were mainly of horses – whether they were about love or farming or warriors – they all featured horses (the most vital animal for these nomadic herders). The instrumentation was simple – several 2 string lutes (with beautiful carved horses heads) played wailing melodies or percussive chords, also appearing sparingly were a plangent top-blown bamboo flute and a large double-headed drum.

The focus is very much on the singing – and the unique style of throat-singing that the area is known for. By making a growling sound in the throat and changing the shape of the mouth cavity (much as you would do to whistle) the singers emit an eerie series of high harmonics – the most skilled practitioners can mould these into melodies. It is an unearthly sound, unlike anything else!

We rounded off the evening (yet again a late one – our days were so packed, we never managed to eat before 10pm!) at Glutton’s Bay with dishes of the local classic, steamed chicken and rice, and a delicious bowl of tooth-rottingly sweet cendol (shaved coconut ice, red beans and green vermicelli).