Week 270 – school’s out for summer

On Monday Tommy and I met up with Moko and Liam at the zoo. The boys had a great time chasing each other round the reptile and monkey enclosures and laughing at the antics of the otters and meerkats.

The giant tortoise was on the move and the butterfly enclosure was particularly abundant with fluttering wings (thankfully they now fascinate Tommy, rather than scare him, but Liam wasn’t so sure!). The wild dogs were out exploring their new enclosure.

On Tuesday afternoon Maisie took part in her end-of-year school concert and picnic. The sky was ominously gloomy, with thundery showers forecast, but the stage was set up and everyone optimistically brought along their hampers and picnic blankets and settled down on the Oval (umbrellas at the ready) for the afternoon’s (very long) spectacular. Any kid who wanted to could perform a party piece, so there were many free-form dance routines to popular hits, bursts of gymnastics and a few tiny kids faltering their way through early piano pieces.

Each class had learned a Christmas song, and Maisie was involved in two of them, both original compositions. The first was her class teacher’s ’10 little fishes’ in which Maisie had a solo line as a shark (confidently declaimed through a microphone). The second was ‘A merry St Kilda Primary Christmas’ in which her friend Hannah was required to do an impression of the school’s flamboyant head-teacher (which she did very well!).

After the concert there was an Aussie Rules Football match, parents and teachers against kids. We watched the first quarter – a Prep/Year 1 team playing their parents/teachers – and the kids played better than the adults! A lively commentary was provided by Dave Hughes, a well-known local radio DJ/comedian and school parent.

As the quarter closed, the rain started, and 5 minutes after we arrived home there was the most almighty thunderstorm, the clouds constantly flickering away with lightning, which occasionally crashed down in great forks. It blew away in time for a colourful Turneresque sunset!

On Thursday evening I went out to see Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’, a film I’ve been keenly anticipating, and it didn’t disappoint. It was about a six-year-old girl and her too-young mother living in a low-cost motel within a stones-throw of Disney World. While the mother sells knock-off perfumes at the posher resorts, dabbles in prostitution and feuds violently with her friends, her neglected but dearly loved little girl roams free, alive to the miracles of nature in the liminal green areas, charming strangers into giving her ice-creams, and getting up to low-level mischief with her similarly unsupervised friends. The film, whilst being sharply observed and social-realist, also managed to capture so truthfully the wonders, joys and fears of a six-year-old’s life. Amazing!

Friday was Maisie’s last day in Prep, and her last day with her beloved class teacher Mr Clapham. She will have a female teacher next year, who we haven’t met yet, and will be taught with a different group of kids (the class groups are changed around every year).

On Saturday afternoon we joined Lizzie K and her friends for a pre-Christmas picnic in the Royal Botanical Gardens. We had a number of kids between us and no toys – and they demonstrated their resourcefulness by politely purloining balls and bubbles (plus more playmates) from another nearby party, and when these had to be returned, played catch with a hat! But their favourite part of the afternoon was a quick dash around the water channels and bamboo forest in the children’s garden.

In the evening I went to see Luca Guadagnino’s latest film ‘Call me by your name’, a lush critically acclaimed 1980s-set Italian summer villa romance. Scripted by James Ivory, it had the Merchant-Ivory touch – repressed/precocious/gay characters, elegant perfectly-pitched dialogue, lashings of meaningful looks, ravishing sun-lit landscapes, and an obsessive attention paid to period detail (Armie Hammer’s succession of colourful short shorts were memorable!). It was a beautiful movie, but (although I was once!) I’m no longer into films about the extremes of passionate young love so I didn’t get caught up in it in the way that was intended!

On Christmas Eve I took Maisie to see ‘Paddington 2’. We didn’t book in advance so had to sit on the second row from the front, which was, perhaps, a bit close for Maisie who gets utterly caught up in films (and often very frightened by them!). It was a sweet-natured, clever film, a pacy adventure yarn whilst also being a genuinely amusing comedy and a (never proselytising) cheer for common sense and kindness. Hugh Grant was perfectly cast as a hammy old actor/dastardly villain! Maisie was often scared, and sobbed her way through a prison scene, but, by gripping my hand tightly for most of the film, she got through it, and afterwards told me how much she had enjoyed it!

We read ‘The Night before Christmas’ at bed-time and Skyped granny, who had found a Mr Men skit on the same book (which Tommy, in particular, loved as he is a big Mr Men fan – he is, as of the day of writing, only answering to the name ‘Mr Busy’). The kids settled down to bed fairly cheerfully and ween’t too over-excited about the following day’s present fest!

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Week 269 – At work and at play

There was no time (or energy) for fun outings in the early part of the week. Maisie and Tommy spent most of their afternoons in the park, where a new combined climbing frame/roundabout is all the rage. It acts as a focal point as children young and old gather together to use it. Maisie spent an entire hour spinning round on it (always in the same direction – and apparently, never getting dizzy!).

On Thursday Tommy and I headed up to Clayton to meet Neil for lunch and a tour of the Faculty of Education’s brand new multi-million dollar building, which he moved into this week (the building he had been working in till last Friday is already being converted into a secondary school – they move fast at Neil’s Uni!).

The massive new building is designed to wow the students (academic reputation just doesn’t cut it these days) with state-of-the-art 360°-screens in the lecture theatres (and cameras that can record/broadcast your every move), giant lime-green four-storey stairways criss-crossing the great glass-ceilinged building-height atriums, which are all centred round a central ‘sculptural’ curving brick wall (which I guess looked great in the computer-generated design/simulation) symbolising the ‘kiln of learning’!

Massive design mistakes have been made at every turn – in the lecture theatres, the sight-lines are so bad that only the front row of students can actually see the lecturer (most people have to rely on the many wall-mounted screens), and even in the smaller classrooms, there is a similar issue, with tables and chairs at random heights – high cafe tables, low sofas and coffee tables, perching bar stools at the window and everything in between (the idea is that everyone has their own most ‘comfortable’ way of learning).

The metal-mesh cladding which wraps around the glass exterior acts as a giant Faraday shield, blocking all mobile phone signals into the building (which is designed round ‘wireless’ hot desks, and is meant to house several thousand staff and students), and one prominent corner of the mesh is already crumpled up (where a careless construction worker – or perhaps someone frustrated that their phone didn’t work inside the building – smashed into it with a large crane/cherry picker).

On the non-showcase floors, everything is pretty basic. The layout is a chaotic mess of large banks of ‘admin’ desks shoved together around pockets of ‘academic’ grey, window-less cubicles (7ft high walls providing visual privacy but no sound-proofing whatsoever). There are no shelves (who needs books these days?!) – in fact, there was nothing to suggest that this might be a university rather than another bland, not particularly well-appointed, corporate office.

Tommy was very unimpressed, and vocal with his dissatisfaction. He screamed his way through the echoey spaces, the few staff around (most were at the first instalment of the day-long ‘welcome in’/Christmas party) looked at him with horror!

We had lunch at a pleasant hipster cafe (which would not have looked/tasted out-of-place on one of Melbourne’s CBD lane-ways) and went for a wander through the campus, which was busy with all sorts of activities. There was a huge beautiful circular ‘60s building being demolished – wrecking balls and giant diggers crashing and booming and sending up toxic clouds of dust (Tommy’s favourite place), whilst nearby an ‘instant garden’ was under construction. We watched the ‘landscaping’ being done (which consisted of great pre-moulded blocks of white polystyrene being lowered into place), and later in the day it was all turfed over and planted (Neil confirmed that the ‘garden’ was complete by the time he finished work!).

It was also a day of student graduations, so there were clusters of smartly-dressed Asian parents everywhere clutching garish bouquets of flowers, and lots of white temporary marquees set up with champagne glasses and competing jazz combos, in front of giant screens live-broadcasting the degree-awarding ceremonies. It reminded me of being at the Australian Open tennis championship!

It was all quite strange. A few of the quieter, more elegant 1950s/1960s buildings remain (although most of these are in jeopardy), which gives the place a little gravity. Some of the whizzy newer buildings were attractively striking, and pockets of the landscaping were thoughtful – in particular a rock garden showcasing a variety of sizeable geological specimens from habitats across the continent, with accompanying flora. There were also some interesting art-works (some even sited in the car parks, Neil informed me!), including Ronnie van Hout’s friendly robot, ‘Dayton’, pictured above.

In the evening I went to see Woody Allen’s latest release ‘Wonder Wheel’. I’ve seen virtually all his films but his hit rate is definitely dwindling with time! ‘Wonder Wheel’ was like a failed version of ‘Blue Jasmine’ with delusions of Tennessee-Williams-grandeur. Set in a lovingly recreated but tiresomely gaudy 1950s Coney Island, the central character of the beleaguered/frustrated woman, ably played by Kate Winslet, was stuck in an inescapable rut. All the actors (with the exception of a hammy Jim Belushi) did their best with the terrible dialogue.

Our weekend was the most intensely social two days I think I’ve experienced since we moved here! Maisie and I started early on Saturday morning with a birthday party at the dreaded ‘Inflatable World’ (adored by kids, abhorred by parents – but the cheapest, generally most reliably successful and easy party option going!). Maisie was one of only two girls invited to a male class-mate’s party and she was just as boisterous as all the boys! And while I was there I bumped into plenty of my friends too, all accompanying their kids at different birthday events.

In the afternoon Maisie,Tommy and I went along to Christopher’s 6th birthday party. Myomi had invited Christopher’s entire kinder class plus associated siblings and parents, so it was pretty full-on.

Ben had bought and erected a small bouncy castle and the kids tested it out to its utmost (there was only one potentially nasty pile-up – which, all-in-all, was pretty good going!).

There were party games (most of which Maisie won – this happened last year too!) and, of course, a marvellous home-made cake – this one an erupting volcano, the flames made of brittle orange-flavour toffee!

I delivered the kids home, all sugared-up, at the end of the day, and Neil sent me out to regain my calm! It was a perfect evening, the light low and golden, with a fresh breeze lifting the heavy daytime heat. I headed down to the weekend food truck festival at Elwood Beach, and caught up with Jules and Ash and their friends over beers and tasty, sloppy paper plates of food.

As I walked home along the coast the last of the evening light was caught in the sea, the city lights twinkling on the horizon – which looked particularly pretty from the little hill at Ormond Point (a view that I only ever see in the day time).

On Sunday morning Tommy and I caught the tram into town to meet up for a coffee with my (second) cousin Katherine and her twin sons (who live in Sydney), and her father John (Dad’s first cousin – who is over from the UK for Christmas). It was interesting to catch up with Covey-Crump news and reminisce about long-dead relatives.

In the afternoon we were invited to a barbecue/house-warming party at another of Maisie’s new school-friend’s houses. Hannah and Eben have a sympathetically renovated old two-storey villa (with the classic ornate wrought-iron-railinged first-floor balcony) in Balaclava. It was spacious and full of beautiful things. Rowena (who lives opposite) was also there and we settled ourselves at a table near the food and ate delicious salads and vegetarian pies and pavlovas and ended up chatting to most of the other guests as they came in to get food. It was all very civilised – particularly as the children based themselves in the TV room, and only came in to the kitchen briefly to grab handfuls of chips and sausages (Tommy ate three huge sausages!).

It was hard to drag Tommy and Maisie away from the telly (although Tommy was very concerned about ‘getting square eyes’!) but as they hadn’t consumed too much sugary food, they were much more pliable than they had been the previous day! My friend Bianca, who is moving from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula this week, was having a last night out in the city so I gathered together the last dregs of my energy and headed on an interminable replacement bus/tram ride up to Brunswick.

We met at a grungy Mexican joint just off Sydney Road with street-side tables. When we arrived everyone there was in a state of excitement, as a passerby had just made off with one of the customer’s bicycles which had been propped against a nearby table. The patrons had all set off in pursuit but were too slow to stop him, and fortunately a passing car-driver had also noticed the commotion and continued the chase. As we arrived the car-driver turned up with the rescued bicycle!

Bianca and her friends and I talked geeky music stuff and travel (a couple were about to embark on a trip to India with an itinerary not unlike mine and Neil’s, back in 2008!) over carefully prepared burritos and ridiculously bright and sugary (free!) doughnuts. Afterwards a few of us walked up to Bar Oussou, a lively North African cafe/bar/venue. A band was playing and the buzzing, sweaty crowd was spilling out into the street. The music was fantastic (as were the individual musicians), a pumping blend of catchy African/Cuban melodies and crazy-fast driving rhythms. They were a Melbourne outfit called ‘Ausecuma’ (the name references their cultural and musical heritages – Australian, Senegalese, Cuban and Malian!), and I very hope that I can catch them again.

Week 268 – the bells, the bells!

The Christmas parties started this week – so there was lots of baking/food preparing/present-buying to be done. On Wednesday morning I met up with Rowena for breakfast at a new cafe in Elsternwick which is (apparently) currently setting Instagram on fire! With an impersonal industrial vibe – all varnished concrete and brushed aluminium – it nevertheless had very friendly service, and the food was as tasty as it was photographable! Row and I shared a kale and quinoa salad (a genuinely delicious dish, with not a hint of worthiness!), and a stack of buckwheat pancakes with sharp grapefruit curd, strawberries, chips of meringue and vanilla mascarpone, all sprinkled with pretty flower blossoms.

Afterwards we drove up to Abbotsford to a new private photography gallery where a friend of Rowena’s was exhibiting some recent works. The gallery was basically just a long corridor, but the photos – large, boldly-edited images of white, sparsely populated mosques and cityscapes (Oman) and lone camels and sheep in orange/brown deserts (Jordan) – were well lit, and atmospheric.

In the evening I met up with Lizzie K and Claire-Anne. I hadn’t seen Claire-Anne since late July, and I had no idea she’d appear with a 4-month pregnancy bump! She has always talked about 3 kids being her ideal number (something that has baffled most of us – but she is very fond of her 2 brothers!), and now it’s about to become reality!! We ate at St Lucia, an interesting, typical new Melbourne establishment, which claimed to be Caribbean, but brought together a very random mix of dishes. Our choices could have come from three different restaurants – a (Tex-Mex) curry goat fajita, a tasty (Caribbean) jerk barramundi dish, and (the oddest thing on the menu) a paper bag full of ‘mac and cheese doughnuts’ – doughnut-shaped rings of crumbed macaroni and cheese, with a bright orange jalapeno-cheese sauce to dip them into! They were yummy and thoroughly unhealthy!

On a gloomy, if sultry, Thursday, the kids and parents of Maisie’s Prep class gathered in a local park after school for an end-of-year picnic. As soon as everyone had arrived, so did the rain, but it didn’t put anyone off. While the parents clustered under the trees eating takeaway pizza and chatting, the children ran around in the open all playing games together, getting completely sodden and not noticing! It was lovely to observe them playing – there weren’t any cliques, and boys and girls mixed easily. Next year, the class groups will be all mixed up – I very much hope that they don’t lose this lovely dynamic!

On Friday Lizzie K and I (and Rosa and Tommy) met up for a coffee to celebrate her being awarded her PhD, which she has, amazingly, completed whilst pregnant/parenting a toddler, dealing with complex health issues, buying/selling/moving 2 houses, and holding down a number of different jobs! Rosa and Tommy enjoyed splashing in the NGV Pool, and were intrigued by the bright colours and shapes of Louise Paramor’s plastic assemblages (which I’d enjoyed the previous week). They enjoyed the Federation Christmas Square bling just as much!

We parted at midday, and I took Tommy to hear the Federation Bells play their lunchtime carillon. The usual random medley of tunes was interspersed with attempted renditions of popular Christmas carols, but due to the bells’ unusual harmonic series, many of the key notes were missing, so they were often barely recognisable! Tommy was quite overwhelmed by the sound and got very emotional! He wanted to leave after the first few pieces, but when I attempted to walk away he started sobbing ‘but I really love the bells, I want to hear them every day’ – so we ended up staying for the full hour. He made me promise that we would come and hear them again the following week! We have an app that plays them on our iPad, which he is aware of, so I said we could listen at home, but he said that wasn’t good enough as they didn’t sound the same (especially the low ones – he enjoyed feeling them vibrating with his hand).

On Saturday we were all invited to a Christmas family barbecue. Natasha is the hostess with the mostest, and always holds lovely gatherings in her beautiful Balaclava bungalow and this was no exception. There was a Kris Kringle (my first!) for the (very many) kids and happily, their gifts kept them occupied for most of the afternoon, whilst us parents sipped Aperol spritzes and ate pulled pork baps in the unexpected warm afternoon sunshine.

We tried to get Tommy and Maisie back home before they’d gone overboard with the sugary snacks and general excitement, but I’m not sure we won! Neil valiantly wrangled them at bedtime while I popped out to see a film at the Elsternwick Classic. It was the Japanese animation ‘In this corner of the world’, a gentle and poetic film about a dangerous and unsettling time. In the 1930s/1940s a young girl grows up in the bustling modern city of Hiroshima, and submits cheerfully to an arranged marriage in the nearby naval-base town of Kure. As war sets in, she stoically manages the household, remaining optimistic, until injury/death strikes too close to home, almost breaking her spirit. It was a fascinating, beautiful film, the details of time and place particularly vivid (apparently the artists closely studied archival film/photos in order to recreate every cityscape/landscape accurately).

On Sunday morning we put the Christmas tree up. The kids did very well in spreading the decorations evenly around the tree! In the afternoon I took Maisie and Tommy along to Maisie’s friend Savinu’s birthday party in yet another local park. The whole class had been invited, and the place was busy with countless other celebrations, so it was all pretty chaotic! For a long while Tommy wouldn’t leave my side, but once he’d been welcomed in to a couple of the ‘big kid’ games, he was away and joining in confidently with everything. Savinu’s mum facilitated some water games which were immensely popular with all the kids (from aged 3 to 9), and Maisie ate her weight in jelly robots, watermelon and lamingtons.

At dusk I made my way to the Federation Bells for the second time this week, for the occasion of the launch of ‘Cling Clang’, a new doom-techno album (on the ‘Heavy Machinery’ label!). Various Australian artists had been invited to write new tracks inspired by/incorporating the carillon and for the launch event they had (mostly) devised whole 20-minute sets with the bells at the very heart of them.

The music was more varied than I had expected, and the bells, with their distinct set of harmonics,(which can be a challenge for any potential composer), were used in very different ways. Naretha Williams had the most melodic approach, pairing a gently repeated harmonic bell-chime pattern with low string drones and a relaxed drum track. ‘Vacuum’ also kept it minimal, pitting repeated rumbling vocals against sparse bass drops, a woozy drum track and high dissonant bell sparkles.

The veteran electro/techno musician Ash Wednesday (known for his 1990s work with German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten) took us on a journey for his set, which started in the realms of crisp dance-floor techno with bell stabs, then gradually dislocated, ending with the ominous repeated tolling of the lowest bell, cutting across the punches of a low bass drum.

My favourite act of the night was ‘Friendships’, an anarchic, up-for-it VJ/DJ duo, who set out with a mission to ‘break’ the bells. In a wave of deliciously nasty noises, frenetic synths, and banging beats (which couldn’t fail to get everyone dancing – for the first time in a long evening!), they programmed insanely fast patterns on the very highest of the bells – it was painful but fabulous – and they did, indeed, manage to stop the app (which triggers them) working for a few minutes, before the able technicians got everything back online. The visuals, renderings of breast-feeding women, galloping horses, hand-drawn dogs, fragments of fire and faces and futuristic buildings, were just as creative as the music.

The last act that I caught (I was fading after three and a half hours of clanging!) was a distinctive, skinny white-haired goth girl who wailed like a grim Enya over thick washes of ‘80s-style electronica. Although she had quite a presence she was more of an energy-drainer than inspirer (unlike Friendships) so I bailed out. As I walked back along the Yarra the huge bats were squawking and screeching and clumsily diving out of the trees, only just above my head, it was faintly alarming!

Week 267 – Mapping Melbourne

The heatwave powered on through the last four days of November, and I made the most of it before December crashed in with gloomy skies, chilly teen temperatures and terribly prolonged showers, some of which got the weather forecasters very excited!

On Tuesday I went on a solo trip down to lovely Rickett’s Point (see photos throughout the blog). Although it was too warm for the carpet sea-stars, plenty of other wildlife was in evidence, including a couple of inquisitive spotted doves and a delightful pair of rainbow lorikeets, fossicking for ants in a hole in a tree. There were flocks of terns perched on the outer edges of the rocky tidal shelves, and a flotilla of black swans admiring their sea-azure reflections. The rock-pools were alive with thousands of tiny creeping sea-snails, the sudden scuttles of crabs and minute crayfish darting for cover.

In the clear clean light every colour zinged – the bobbles and fronds of green/gold/pink seaweed swirling in the shallows, fragments of pearlescent abalone shell, red/gold sandy cliffs and cerise flowering succulents. The low coastal shrub cover was darting with (rarely visible) tiny trilling birds, and everything was covered with tiny flowers (mainly white and mauve) and glowing red berries. Looking down from the cliff-top path, the sea shimmered in every shade of blue. I was having such a lovely time I only just made it back in time for Maisie’s school pick-up!

On Wednesday I joined Michele and a couple of her friends for the last 11km of her Movember marathon (bringing her total distance to 400km – mostly walked/some cycled over the course of a month!). It was another gloriously hot sunny day and we power-walked down to the Brighton beach huts for a picturesque finale, stopping off afterwards for celebratory freshly-pressed juices at the Brighton sea-baths cafe. We had plenty of time for leisurely conversations as we strolled – it made me miss the good old (child-free) days of the Time Out country walks!

On Thursday night I met up with Neil’s Swedish colleague Anna-Lena who is over here working and travelling for a few weeks, and keen to see some live shows. We went to see this year’s NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) graduate performance, a presentation entitled ‘Please Hold’, which had been choreographed by the esteemed Australian dance director Kate Champion. It was a visually striking show, with some interesting soundscapes blending interviews with students and members of the public about aspirations/perceptions of circus, that also functioned as backing tracks to some of the acts.

The performers were very strong and skilled. An opening section where they all demonstrated different extended handstands, whilst being (live) interviewed was fascinating, and this was followed by some beautiful hula-hooping – both imaginatively structured, and immaculately lit (the hula hoops were in subtle metallic shades, spotlit so they sparkled like ghostly Christmas baubles when they spun). The next sequence, comprising 4 cyr wheel performers and a couple of unicyclists, was also unusual and impressive (all 4 of the large heavy metal hoops were loping around the stage at once!). One of the female cyr wheel performers’ did the splits for the whole of her routine (something I’ve not seen done before).

Later on the show lost its way a bit. The stage was crowded and hectic with running, and attempts at more contemporary dance-style moves didn’t suit the performers so well. The most successful scene symbolised the students’ leap into the real world. A low trapeze swing circled wildly around and across the stage, acrobats ducking away or leaping for it and flying above everyones heads before being dragged down to earth again. Their teamwork here was impressive, amongst all the chaotic movement, a variety of stunts were performed.

Friday saw the start of this year’s ‘Mapping Melbourne’ Festival, an annual 2-week event curated by Multicultural Arts Victoria which celebrates Asian/Australian collaborative/community arts (generally, the more experimental the better!). A number of my gamelan friends were involved in different performances, and the festival was one of the sponsors for our Gamelan DanAnda ‘I Said Neon’ new music gig that took place on Sunday night (keep reading for more on this!).

On Friday night I went down to the Testing Grounds – a square of gravel situated between the back of the Arts Centre and the entrance to a busy road tunnel bypass, which is fitted out with four temporary studio sheds, a few sun/rain shades and a bar. It is used by creators and performers to try out new stuff at their regular evening ‘art parties’. A couple of the sheds had been taken over by new ‘Mapping Melbourne’ collaborations, one of which was a performance by visual artist En En See (who did live clay paintings) and my friend Bianca, who created some beautiful live improvised soundscapes using a selection of bowed and struck gamelan instruments and prepared piano.

One of the other sheds housed a much odder collaboration! The Japanese artist Yumi Umiumare had set up a ‘pop-up tea-room’, and invited visitors to join her for a meditative cup of tea, whilst sitting in a circle of (what appeared to be) bones (they were in fact branches of cotton-wool-felted ‘coral’). I’d never taken part in a tea ceremony before so it was a treat to observe all the highly-choreographed actions close at hand (although the bright green frothy tea tasted like boiled cabbage!).

Slightly unnervingly though, just beyond the bone circle, lurked an anonymous man in a white full-body-stocking who sat very still and seemed to be observing us. It turned out that he was part of the show. Once we had finished drinking tea, we were invited to step out of the coral circle and grab a tea-cup full of runny paint which we had to chuck at him or on to a large white canvas at his feet! As we left the pavilion we were presented with a random word card. The installation was entitled ‘Con-TemporariTEA’, and all the words on the cards followed the same pattern (‘MoraliTEA, FamiliariTEA). Mine was ‘AnimosiTEA’!!

The other two pavilions were busy with unrelated projects, outside one a couple of artists were busy expressing themselves in wildly-sparking welding and exuberant clay construction, another was set up as a tiny music venue with a bar and a few chairs and a pocket-sized stage. I caught a very loud 10 minutes of a solo side-drum set – the drum had been rigged up with all sorts of trigger/touch pads which set off various synth pads and effects that quickly conjured up a banging synth-techno odyssey. The drummer was excellent and it was fantastic to begin with, but it got a bit samey after a while.

The meteorological office issued warnings of biblical rainfalls this weekend, which never really eventuated, but the incessant heavy drizzle was still impressive and led to the cancellation/rescheduling/moving of all sorts of local outdoor events and shook everything up a bit! The annual Christmas party organised by The Avenue (Tommy’s childcare) was relocated from a park to the nursery building, which made it a very noisy and cramped affair. Tommy was too overwhelmed by the crowds to leave my side for a minute so I didn’t manage to catch up with anyone (I had hoped to meet the parents of all his new buddies, but that wasn’t to be!).

Neil nobly took on the task of keeping the kids occupied indoors for the afternoon, and I headed into town, to the Big Design Market at the Royal Exhibition Building. It’s always nice to go to an event in the loftily late C19th Ally-Pally-style halls, and it turned out that the monied hipster middle classes had not been put off by the weather at all, and were out in full force to invest in cutesy Japanese ceramics, delicately-worked silver/garish sparkly perspex jewellery, boldly printed/oddly cut haberdashery/garments, organic/handmade cosmetics, beeswax foodwrap and worthy wooden/impossibly expensive children’s toys. It was all too expensive for me, but very lovely!

In the late afternoon I caught a Japanese film at ACMI. Entitled ‘Flower and Sword’, it was a lively and unusual C16th-set drama about a shy and eccentric young monk with an astonishing talent for ikebana (flower arranging). Loved by his fellow monks and the local community for his childlike joy and compassion and virtuosity with flowers, the time comes when he has to utilise these skills on behalf of the terrified townspeople to placate a local feudal lord whose grief and hunger for power have turned him into a brutal despot.

As the rain continued to fall, I headed to a basement screening room at RMIT, where the evening’s planned ‘Mapping Melbourne’ open-air showing of a new Indonesian film had been relocated to. Amazingly, the weather/venue change hadn’t deterred anyone and a big crowd had gathered. There was plenty of food and socialising and speeches before the film began, so it felt like an authentically Indonesian experience! I was particularly happy, that, on the way in (to the free showing) I was handed a free slice of chocolate martabak (pancake) – it was definitely my type of film screening!!

The film turned out to be a work in progress, a half-hour documentary on ‘Jaranan’, a type of folk trance-dance practised in East Java. Participants dance with woven wicker horses before falling into trance and behaving wildly, channelling differently-natured spirits with shamanic powers. The (young Australian) film-maker had found an interesting character in the director of the trance troupe, a middle-aged former gangster who had been called to the tradition late in life, and was convinced that the practice of this ritual in no way clashed with his Muslim beliefs (although in Indonesia it is not always perceived that way). The footage was lively and atmospheric, and the film lightly raised interesting questions about tradition/belief, religion/politics, social class, the effect of the ‘touristic’ presentation etc. which the film-makers expanded on in the Q&A following the screening. We had watched an edit they had completed that morning, and they were hoping to make it into a longer film, which I hope they get the chance to do!

Sunday was the day of our gamelan gig at the Meat Market. Neil, Maisie, Tommy and I went along in the afternoon to join in the pre-gig workshops. The venue was stunning – the old market halls are well-preserved in their vaulted glory, the black felt curtains and white-painted tracery of the iron columns a wonderful backdrop for the intricate gold carvings of the gamelan instruments.

Pak Yande (who had managed to catch the first flight out of Bali, following the volcano-caused hiatus) led a kecak (vocal monkey chant) workshop, and Maisie and Tommy did their best to join in (although Tommy was more keen to loudly shout his own instructions to me!). Maisie concentrated very hard and even mastered the swaying arm and hand movements.

After a brief bash on the gangsa Neil took the kids home and I stayed on for a session led by local multi-instrumentalist/composer Adam Simmons, who guided the participants (on kebyar instruments, gender wayang and piano) through the basic tenets of ‘Conduction’, a group improvisation technique devised in the 1970s by jazz musician Butch Morris. He showed us a dozen hand gestures, for triggering sustained/short/loud/high/low notes, repeated motifs and expansions and recapitulations, and ‘mexican wave’-type patterns circling round the ensemble. Even with a group of novices, the technique was remarkably effective, leading to the creation of some lovely, and often surprising textures. Later, in the concert, the same group of us got together and performed another live improvisation for an audience, and they were very appreciative!

Our evening concert showcased a number of brand new compositions by members of the group – some referencing traditional kebyar/other gamelan repertoire, some focussing on the sonic dissonances between western/Balinese scales, some reproducing Balinese rhythms and sounds on Western percussion. It was a fascinating programme and full of variety.

I could write enthusiastically about every piece, but that might get boring! Highlights were Jeremy’s ‘Saturation’, for 8 kebyar gangsa and 8 gender wayang, which gently explored all the sparkling harmonics of the paired ombak and clashing scales, Adam King’s ‘Phase Rotation’ a beautiful kit drum solo (with added Balinese gongs and cymbals) which explored Balinese and Indian rhythmic cycles, Jonathan Griffiths tightly focussed Reong quartet which produced some electrifying moments of shimmering brilliance, and Bianca’s powerful Piano/Voice-Gong/Trumpet trio ‘I said no’, which set an increasingly distressed expressive vocal (“I said no!”) over anxious/brash trumpet calls, rumbling gongs and dissonant grinding piano chords. Kitty Xiao affectionately referenced Debussy in her piece ‘Where we meet’ composed for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano, gong and two gangsa. After the gig, Pak Yande was asked what he thought – he said ‘It looks like gamelan. It doesn’t sound like gamelan. It isn’t gamelan’!

Week 266 – music and movement

It was another startlingly hot Spring week (we later learnt that we’d had the longest November heatwave since local records began back in 1862). I enjoyed the 30 degree days but the (only slightly cooler) nights were less fun! I took Tommy to get his hair cut on Monday – he’d been keen to get it done for a while! And he sat perfectly still while the hairdresser set to with the clippers and scissors, utterly engrossed in the same episodes of ‘Roary the racing car’ that she always has lined up on her iPad.

Maisie started her 8-day intensive school swimming classes this week. All the Preps/Year 1s are bussed together to the nearby Melbourne Sports and Aquatics Centre – it’s a big operation! By the end of the first 4 days she was confidently diving down to the bottom of the (shallow) pool to pick things up, and had grasped the basic rudiments of front crawl – and, although she was exhausted, she was looking forward to the next round of lessons the following week.

The kids continued their blast of creativity this week with some imaginative dressing up sessions – they tried to disguise themselves and/or dress up as each other, and Maisie discovered the joys of loom bands. She worked out how to make a basic bracelet on Sunday morning, and by the evening had made 28 of them for her classmates (including her teacher and his baby daughter!).

On Tuesday I popped into town to do some Christmas shopping, which I managed to combine with some culture! There are a number of new exhibitions at the NGV Ian Potter Gallery, including one well-suited for a hot day – ‘The Pool’ is a celebration of Australian municipal swimming pools – archive photos and oral testimonies are presented in a gallery which has been turned into an inviting and stylish miniature swimming pool, all (assiduously mopped) wooden decking, mirrored/aquamarine-painted walls and clean cool (ankle-deep) water.

A large suite of galleries on the ground floor had been devoted to a career survey of the Australian artist Gareth Sansom. Active from the 1960s, his works, mainly paintings on canvas, were large and messy and colourful and angry, full of fairly unfathomable social commentary and neuroses. It was hard to get engaged with them, but a couple stood out.

One was a recent bold half yellow/half red canvas entitled ‘Miss Piggy’s brush with mortality’, the other was a great hand-woven tapestry (executed by the Australian Tapestry Workshop). The colours and elements sung together in a way that they didn’t when presented simply as paint on canvas!

On the top floor, a room full of recent works by Helen Maudsley, an Australian artist of a similar vintage, was very different. In a consistently cool palate of pinks and mauves, peaches and greys, her paintings explored ‘non-verbal forms of communication’. The paintings were semi-abstract, reflective and restful, with rambling poetic titles such as [note this is all one title!] ‘When shoe leaves foot. When Dreams become Myths, become Facts. When Foot stays Grounded with Difference. And the Pillar, the Secular Presence of God’.

The works I enjoyed most on this visit were the brilliantly-coloured plastic assemblages by the artist Louise Paramor. Constructed from found objects and industrial detritus sourced directly from factories, her sculptures were fun, rhythmic and dynamic, and had quite a presence, even in isolation, and a whole room of them together was like a huge dance.

Paramor was also exhibiting a room full of giant concertina-paper structures, which were also striking, but felt more like the kind of designer Christmas decorations you’d find in a furniture showroom!

I was hoping to catch one of the free lunchtime gigs at the Melbourne Music Week hub, which this year was handily (but not very excitingly) based in the car park next to the St Paul’s Cathedral. There was an impressive stage with a large battery of speakers, a bar, and a food stall selling one type of sandwich(!), but it was very dead, and after a while of quiet waiting, a member of staff came to talk to all the little clustered groups of audience individually, explaining that the band had cancelled at the last minute and that they were ringing round trying to get someone to step in at zero notice! I didn’t have time to wait around to see if that strategy would work!

In the evening I caught up with my mum’s group friends. Although we keep up individually, since our kids have started at their 3 different schools, we haven’t managed to meet up regularly as a group. Our experiences of the ‘prep’ year have been surprisingly different and we cover the spectrum of parent/school involvement/non-involvement (I’m at the latter end of the scale, having only ever spoken to Maisie’s teacher twice, others were in the habit of consulting their class teacher daily!).

On a beautiful hot, clear and sunny Wednesday morning I joined Michele for her daily ‘Movember’ walk. She used to work for the men’s health charity, known for encouraging men to raise money by growing a sponsored ‘mo’’ (moustache) for November, and this year, took on their ‘move’ challenge – she set herself the goal of walking/cycling 400 kilometres in a month! The logistics (of finding time to fit in all that exercise) alone have been eye-wateringly challenging! We walked 10 kilometres down to Brighton and back, and then she had to get on the bike to top the mileage up.

Friday dawned murky and grey, but still very hot and unusually humid. Tommy and I met up with Moko and Liam for coffee at the MPavilion, and went on to the NGV Pool, which the boys had to themselves. As it’s an art installation we had to keep the running and splashing to minimum, which wasn’t always easy as they were very excited! We struggled to persuade Liam to leave, until Tommy said ‘I’ll help’ and waded back in, grabbed Liam by the hand and led him out of the water!

We had better luck with the free Melbourne Music Week lunchtime gig on Friday, a double bill of two very different bands. The first was the noise band ‘The Ocean Party’. A drummer and a saxophonist let rip over dense meshes of synth/guitar feedback. It was pretty full-on, but all of us stuck it out and there were no complaints from the boys (Tommy politely clapped at the end of each track). The following band, ‘Party Dozen’ were one of those rangy Melbourne pop bands, full of guitars and winds and random instruments. They were pleasant but not distinctive.

In the evening I went to see Greek film director Yorgios Lanthimos’ latest macabre slice of surrealism ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. It was like a modern re-telling of a Greek legend, in that none of the characters had any agency – once their fate was decreed, they had to live it out in its full extended horror. The main protagonist is a respected surgeon, who is stalked/blackmailed by a dead patient’s son, who, it turns out, is some sort of angel of death. When he tells the surgeon that his children will become paralysed and slowly die (unless he makes a barbaric Faustian choice), that is what they do. It was atmospheric (the cinematography was particularly effective) and very bleak, with little in the way of Lanthimos’ signature absurdist humour.

On Saturday morning I took Maisie to a trial class with the Australian Girl’s Choir. They run singing classes for girls aged from 6 to 18, and the better (and older) ones get to perform in all sorts of glamorous, high profile gigs! The class Maisie went to was based around singing games, and she really enjoyed it. We have to decide whether we can be bothered to commit to taking her to a 9am class every Saturday!

At dusk, the light an ominous fiery pink (much later it poured with rain) I went up to the MPavilion to hear another free Melbourne Music Week gig. The premise was intriguing – the ‘Melbourne Drone Orchestra’ (a line-up of 14 electric guitars of various descriptions) had joined together with four Aboriginal didgeridoo players to create a drone soundscape tracing the history of Australia – from aboriginal origins via colonialism and reparation, and positing a hopeful future. The musicians were lined up around the sides of the round MPavilion amphitheatre, and I (along with a few brave others) sat in the middle of it all. The didgeridoos started and the sound was wonderful – the deep vibrations of the bass tone with all the percussive growls and clicks and rhythms of wind/water/bird song etc. within them. I’m not sure I’ve heard proper didgeridoo playing since I’ve lived in Australia, it was a real treat!

The guitars gradually joined the texture with their own low drones, building up textures and harmonics and controlled feedback, until the whole building was vibrating. It was an exciting, visceral feeling, like being in the middle of a huge machine (but I was glad of the free ear-plugs that they supplied, that kept things in the realm of pleasantly overwhelming, rather than painful!). At their noisiest, most screeching climax, the guitars cut out, and the didgeridoos came to the fore again. A couple of the players danced their traditional dances, of emu and kangaroo, they were graceful and cheeky. It was a lovely ending.

After the gig I walked up through Fed Square (where I enjoyed the newly erected ridiculously bling Christmas tree!), and caught the tram up to Brunswick where Bianca was celebrating her 30th birthday in a pub. It was a surprisingly civilised affair – we all sat round in a quiet pub dining room playing board games and discussing weird and wonderful musical projects and one girl’s sudden decision to sell up and move to Alice Springs!

I spent Sunday afternoon rehearsing for our forthcoming gamelan gig. I’m playing in Jeremy’s piece for 16 gender/gangsa, which is based on a repetitive cycle, with each round getting more dense harmonically, setting off all the crazy harmonics of the instruments, also Bianca’s pretty minimalist piece ‘Gamelan and tea-lights at dusk’ for piano, gender, flute and bass clarinet. Jeremy talked us through his concept for Margapati with brass fanfare – the brass play the part of a group of young bucks who come to a party, get rowdy and drunk, then pass out!

Week 265 – little fluffy clouds

Summer arrived in full force this week – we had long days of scorching heat and glaring blue skies scattered with little fluffs of white cloud which occasionally bubbled up into ominous anvils and led to the most spectacular lightning storms we’ve seen here in years (one of which dominated Saturday afternoon – flickering and crashing directly above us for almost 2 hours). The kids were both excited and scared (see Maisie’s picture!).

Some of the enforced indoor time led to creative endeavours – such as the car park and airport, pictured, that Tommy and Maisie made together!

I continued to curb my daily ambitions in an attempt to fully heal my back, but I did make it out to a couple of films. The first was ‘Brad’s Status’, by writer/director Mike White, whose recent sharp ensemble drama ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ I had enjoyed, but this was a misfire. A middle-aged man’s riff on social media, reputation and personal insecurity, it lacked the bite of (the similarly-themed) ‘Ingrid Goes West’, and veered wildly from acute observation to total inanity. Ben Stiller did his best as the utterly unlikeable titular character, and his relationship with his shy 17-year-old son was affectingly played, but a relentless (and largely redundant) voiceover stomped over every good moment in the film.

Thankfully, ‘The Teacher’, by the Czech directer Jan Hrebejk, was a different proposition entirely. Set in Bratislava in 1983 (and inspired by a true story), it was about a well-connected member of the communist hierarchy who passes herself off as a high school teacher. She glorifies the soviets in lessons, and swiftly (but subtly) introduces a regime of bullying and corruption which reaches far beyond the classroom and leads to one pupil trying to take her own life. The girl’s desperate parents want redress, as does the head-teacher, who covertly arranges a meeting of all the parents. But here the old hierarchy still dominates – the vocal collaborators/bullies cow the fearful majority, and it looks like nothing can ever change – but the film leaves us with some hope!

We spent most of the weekend down by the sea. St Kilda is suddenly in holiday mode, the sea busy with batches of trainee stand-up-paddle-boarders, sea-rescue drills, and the noisy engines of jet-skis and motorboats whizzing out of the marina…

…while the beach is crowded with clusters of bare-fleshed 20-somethings at various stages of inebriation/sunburn. A few of them had purchased this season’s must-have item – a giant animal-themed inflatable – there were flamingos and unicorns (and also giant slices of fruit toast and pizza!).

We popped down to the end of the pier to see how the penguins were doing in the heat, and were surprised to see a few of them out sunning themselves!

Maisie was thrilled to get in her first boogie board session of the season (there were zero waves though, it functioned more as a glorified float!).

We also spent some time hanging out with our lovely neighbours and their kids. In our stairwell of 6 flats (3 families, 3 mainly child-hating singles/couples) we have all the ages between 3 and 7 covered! Camille, the oldest, played teacher, getting all the kids to do their sums and teaching them dance routines. Tommy managed to side-step most of the work by maintaining his role as the dog.

In the late afternoon, at the peak of the heat, Rachel got out the water balloons and there ensued 20 minutes of incredibly loud and splashy chaos in our car park!

Week 264 – mirror maze and inflatable world

Continuing back pain rather narrowed my horizons this week (although a session with a local osteopath on Friday set me on the path to recovery). On Tuesday it was Melbourne Cup Day, a state (but not federal) holiday, so the kids were off school/childcare but Neil had to go to work!

It was a gloomy grey day, but we brightened it up with a trip to the Mirror Maze, an attraction set up for the Melbourne Festival, but retained for a few extra weeks due to its ongoing popularity. It was a hefty steel structure, made up of identical triangular-sized cells, each with one or more mirrored walls.

It was effective, and often hard to work out whether the people you could see were real or reflected, and sometimes it appeared that you were surrounded by a crowd when there were actually only 2 or 3 people around. Disappointingly (as it was pricey to get in!), Maisie found her way out in less than 5 minutes, so I had to persuade her to try retracing her steps and investigating the various dead ends. Tommy was a bit spooked, and keen to leave as soon as possible!

Afterwards we walked up the road to the ACMI cafe for cake and juice, and the kids were charmed by the archive footage they have loaded onto iPads at each table – there were kids on go-carts, old Moomba parades, amazing miniature trains (even I was impressed – these working steam engines were hardly bigger than Tommy’s toys, yet pulled carriages loaded with several people!) and vintage Grand Prix racing cars.

By the art gallery, the large concrete ‘anti terrorist’ blocks (they litter every central Melbourne street these days) had been inventively customised. I particularly liked an appliqued fabric representation of Ned Kelly, as portrayed by the artist Sidney Nolan (pictured)!

On Wednesday I took Tommy to the Children’s Hospital for a follow-up appointment regarding his knocked out teeth. They reassured me that all is fine for now, although there could have been some damage to his adult teeth, which will only become clear once they appear (in 3 years time). He certainly isn’t bothered at all by his big gummy gap! Before we left the hospital we went to visit their resident meerkats (they have more there than they do at the zoo). Tommy observed their behaviours closely, then pretended to be one for the rest of the afternoon.

We went for a play in the lovely playground next to the hospital, which was designed in collaboration with representatives of local aboriginal groups, and is full of trees, rocks and wood, balancing ropes, sand and water (as well as some fantastic slides).

Tommy had such fun pumping water and channelling it down pipes and through sluices. He also practised his meerkat moves (he is pictured as the sentry, perched on a high rock, darting his head round – he also dug in the sand with his front paws for insects, and lay on his back sunbathing).

On Saturday Maisie and Tommy were invited to Adrian’s birthday party. Rowena isn’t too excited about organising children’s parties, so (at Adrian’s insistence!)) had booked the kids into a fully catered session at ‘Inflatable World’, her least favourite indoor play-centre. In a dingy sports-hall in a small suburban industrial estate there was a giant bouncy castle. We arrived as they were inflating it, and Maisie and Tommy were awestruck! They had a fabulous time, and hoovered up the food provided – the whole party menu comprised chips, crisps, fairy bread, party pies, sausage rolls and mini-frankfurters! The cake was delicious though – a beautiful (and not too sweet) fresh strawberry and cream sponge, which Row had bought on the way to the party venue!

We hitched a lift back with Rowena and stopped off at the (Lebanese) Oasis Bakery, which lived up to its name on this particular day! It is also situated in a small industrial estate off a suburban trunk road, but there the similarity to Inflatable World ends! In the cafe I ordered tabouleh salad and juices and skewers of fragrantly spiced meats, and later stocked up on Mediterranean delicacies (tubs of babaganoush, olives, turkish breads, cheeses and freshly made falafels) in the deli. I think it has the most enticing stock of any non-Asian food shop in Melbourne!

On Sunday we were beginning to relax into a reasonably extended bout of warm settled weather. We walked along the coast to Elwood Beach for a lunchtime picnic, and the sea was incredibly still and clear, spanning myriad shades of brown, gold, turquoise, blue and green.

In the afternoon Neil took the kids down to St Kilda Beach, and I headed up to Thornbury for a gamelan rehearsal. In early December Gamelan DanAnda is presenting a concert of new works written for gamelan and western instruments, including traditional favourite Margapati with brass fanfare, and Jeremy’s piece for 8 gender wayang and 8 gender kebyar. We have Jeremy’s Balinese teacher Pak Yande coming over to lead it, open kecak and improvisation workshops, and a cool North Melbourne venue, so it should be exciting!  I caught up with several friends I haven’t seen in a while, including Bianca, who is always involved in weird and wonderful projects. She has just come back from Java, where she was learning to play an extraordinary folk instrument from a remote mountainous region which is part stringed instrument/part traditional duck-herders shelter!