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January 30, 2008: The announcement today that my Vancouver Remembered won the Vancouver Book Prize quite jogged me out of my recent routine of painting and thinking Australian thoughts. The radio interview I did on CBC by telephone catapulted me back to Canada: snow on Vancouver streets and the city in chaos, old books, winning that prize for the first time 16 years ago when we were living in our little frame house in Kerrisdale and contemplating moving to the farm in the valley. Lifetimes ago. I was beginning to think I was so superannuated that my work couldn't win a major book prize: I've been a finalist/bridesmaid four times since 1991. Anyway, although winning is everything (I am sort of Australian now), I wish there was some way Fred Herzog's trove of fabulous city photos from the 50s and 60s could also have won something; I haven't read the two novels that were also finalists, but perhaps one day.

-Back to Australian thoughts: a curiosity of living here is discovering the depths of cronyism and corruption in the States. There just isn't anything like it in Canada currently. In Victoria,  political influence on the police and police corruption, much of it involving mafia-like crime syndicates, is a regular feature of the news. In New South Wales, where we live, the Labor government is becoming increasingly opaque and authoritarian -- relatively easy to do in a place without a Bill of Rights where Freedom of Information laws have been gutted in the past decade; although they didn't mention it in last year's election campaign, our beloved State government is going to sell off the entire power-generation system and use some of the money to fund its dubious road and rail expansion programs that are mainly built and run by private firms. But the granddaddy of them all is Western Australia, where a former premier, Brian Burke, always appearing in his trademark sunglasses and Panama Hat, has tentacles extending into every aspect of government and business.

A premier in the 80s whose Labor government was known as "WA Inc," Burke did a jail term for corruption ($1.5 billion the estimated cost of his activities to the treasury), then emerged in the mid-90s to continue his lobbying activities with undiminished effect. The "unkillable beast" is one name for him; an unnamed government minister said "It's like he's got a stake through his heart but he keeps walking." Public servants and ministers have lost their jobs for associating with him, and insiders claim he has effective control of the government and its decisions, many of which seem to benefit his clients. The anti-corruption commission has been tapping his phones and following him and his business associates around with listening devices, all to no avail. It's as interesting to follow as was the Vander Zalm government in BC 20 years ago.

January 25, 2008:

George imitating a kangaroo in honour of Australia Day (hit your "refresh" or "reload" button to see him again!)

-This is thunderstorm season, so I was more than anxious when George ran across the street the other evening and disappeared down the storm drain. I walked the neighbourhood, thinking he would emerge lost through some other street's drain, then after dark drove around hoping to spot him. All I could think of was being father to a teenager (not that Sarah Jane ever needed to be scooped up from the darkened streets) and an old bumper sticker from 20 years ago: "It's 10 pm -- do you know where your cat is?" Fortunately it was a clear evening and he returned home after a four-hour adventure.

Not so lucky were a group of graffiti artists in Maroubra, a beach suburb south of Sydney, who were spray painting the inside of a storm drain the other day when a storm hit. Two were drowned; one, who was so drunk he could hardly stand, was washed out to sea through a gap in the bars at the outlet, where a couple of surfers rescued him. A particularly Darwinian sort of tragedy ....

-Australia Day is tomorrow. Yesterday, the Belgian owners of a magazine group announced that it was shutting down The Bulletin, the oldest Australian current-affairs magazine. Founded 128 years ago, it once published iconic Australian writers including Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson ("The Man from Snowy River") and artists such as Norman Lindsay. No saviour has emerged yet from amongst all the squillionaires rich from the recent resources boom. Another victim of the internet, say the radio commentators.

-An ad for "Project Officer, Dingo Management" caught my eye. It sounded like a particularly rugged, traditional outback sort of a job in the "Far North of South Australia," but the language was pure city: I especially liked how the officer would "employ standardised techniques" to investigate "dingo-induced calf mortality."

-Compared with Canada, Australian liquor laws are particularly free-wheeling. Around Christmas and New Year's, there were huge promotions at Liquorland for discounted champagne; now, for Australia Day, they're flogging 3 flats of beer for $90, which is quite a bargain and perfect for the Saturday barbies many are planning. But to keep us all safe there's a panel of experts who police alcohol advertising.

In one of the ads that was recently rejected, according to the weekend paper, "a woman leans against a Mercedes, while the male driver activates the aerial, raising and then undoing her dress, revealing a bikini underneath. She then climbs onto the bonnet to drink a bottle of Boag's beer." Beer and Mercedes in the same ad?

-And a final note about Australia Day: nationalists were incensed to discover that nearly all the official souvenirs (junky hats, etc.) for the National Day have been made in China.


January 20, 2008:

-on a very rainy Saturday we went into Sydney to farewell our friend Elaine Stevens, who had visited us for a week early this month and had been travelling elsewhere in Australia during the couple of weeks since. (Please note the very-Australian use of the word "farewell" as a verb in the sentence above.) She flew back this morning on the non-stop to Vancouver.

We stayed at this terrace house B&B in Glebe, the community adjoining the University of Sydney (photographed this morning after the skies had cleared). It was quite a grand place, certainly compared with the tiny working-class terrace we stayed in more than a year ago in the Surry Hills neighbourhood adjoining the commercial city. Big-city living seemed very attractive, an impression tarnished somewhat by the nearby party that went on practically all night and kept us awake.

Although we were rather thwarted by the rain and weren't able to wander about as much as wanted, we ended up driving around the city, which was really quite beautiful in the foggy drizzle. At Balmoral, normally shoulder-to-shoulder with sunbathers and swimmers on a summer weekend, the beach was deserted except for a rather hapless wedding party, barefoot in the sand getting their photos taken.


-and a final note: a mysterious billboard atop a building near the University of Sydney. 

January 19, 2008: more dispatches from a crazy country.

-Central Queensland, which has been in drought for years, is now under water. Towns in Queensland and New South Wales are on evacuation alert, not due to bush fires but due to the threat of flooding.

-a few months ago commentators were predicting a huge surge in the price of food, especially fruit, vegetables and dairy products, due to the drought. Instead, recent rain has created such a bumper crop that one grower gave away 6 tonnes of ripe tomatoes at the Sydney markets last week. Tomatoes are a dollar a kilo at our local market.

-the whaling imbroglio with Japan has been much in the news here, and probably also in Canada due to the involvement of Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Society. Two of its crew members boarded one of the Japanese whalers in the self-proclaimed (by Australia) whale sanctuary in Australia's Antarctic sphere of influence and were detained. Following high-level diplomatic intervention, an Australian customs ship arrived to take the protesters from the Japanese ship and return them to the Sea Shepherd's ship. An Australian court agreed with environmentalists that Japanese whaling in the sanctuary was illegal, while also stating that it had no mechanism to enforce its decision because Japan doesn't recognize the sanctuary.

-Final mention of cricket here (promise): India won the Perth Cricket Test, ending Australia's winning streak.

-and on something completely different and distant, there was the announcement in Vancouver last week of the finalists for the Vancouver Book Prize. My Vancouver Remembered is one of them. It's a strange feeling, as it was last May when that book was short-listed for the Duthie Prize and I thought I really ought to be there for the gala, win or lose. Fortunately for my sense of priorities, the city is only making the presentation before a council meeting on January 29! So, no big party at which I'd probably drink too much.

January 17, 2008:

- we've moved on from the cricket -- India is now playing Australia in a multi-day "Test" in Perth -- as they appear to have put all the racism and sportsmanship issues to one side and focused on the game, which doesn't interest us in the least. No word on whether police are frisking cricket fans for missiles like full tins of beer, which have been chucked during some of the previous matches.

Instead, we've discovered tennis! Whoo! Our friend Elaine Stevens from Vancouver, who visited here last week and is now spending time in Melbourne where the Australian Open is being played, can take the credit/blame. It's fun to watch, and from this far away we're unaffected by the capsicum (i.e. pepper) spray that police have been unleashing on unruly fans who have been chanting in a disruptive manner. Last year there was a near-riot when fans of Serb and Croat players decided to play the Balkan national sport outside, and the police vowed zero tolerance. The bad news is that a number of totally innocent tennis fans in nearby seats were nailed by the indiscriminate spraying, and are now contemplating legal action.

-a new term, at least for me. The fashion is still low-cut hipster jeans below a swath of belly with a short tank-top above. Alas, young women who are a bit too pudgy for the style still go with it, leading to the expression "muffin top."

- Sometimes the bureaucracy here is so weird we just want to crawl into a cave. When the telephone near-monopoly, the hated Telstra, phones, the conversation goes something like this:

"Can I speak to Michael Kluckner please?


"Can you give me your full name and date of birth so I can confirm I'm speaking to the correct person?"

"No. You phoned me. How do I know you're from Telstra?"

"I'm just following our procedures ...."

"Do you also believe in the tooth fairy?"

But you eventually have to deal with them by their rules! Gnash! Spit! And so it goes, even more so with the government than with "private enterprise." Ian Sacré, who visited a month ago, was taking photos of signs, concentrating on ones with lists of "don'ts". Can't wait to see them.

January 11, 2008:

- I knew you'd want an update: the cricket is back on, more or less. India, which is even more cricket-mad than Australia and responsible for 70% of the revenues to the international cricket governing body, managed to get the umpire sacked, but says it will quit the Australian tour, said to be worth $50 million, if the charges of racism against its spin-bowler aren't withdrawn. There was a significant blow to the reputation of the Australian team when a group of sports hall-of-fame members criticized them for their "win at any cost" attitude. Somebody commented on the radio that Australians are good losers but poor winners.

-more importantly, Australians can change! Apparently, water usage in the Greater Sydney area has dropped to its lowest level since 1974 when the population was significantly less than the current 4.3 million. And when it comes to individual water usage, the Blue Mountains communities (including us) came second after an inner-west area called Leichhart. It must be because we put in a rainwater tank.

-and, flexing its muscles, the new Australian government is going to strike a blow for environmental responsibility by ... (wait for it) ... banning free plastic shopping bags! Yes, we can breathe easier now. Environment minister and former rock star Peter Garrett said that they could probably impose the new rules by the end of '08. Meanwhile, a new study has focused on the health implications of the mercury content of compact fluorescent bulbs, which have been installed free in many Australian homes (including ours) as an energy-saving measure. They were free due to a carbon-offset program of the previous government, which intended to ban incandescent lightbulbs in the next few years.

January 7, 2008:

-the doldrums of the summer hols have been enlivened by a huge stoush between India and Australia over the second Cricket Test. Tests are the four or five day borefests that captivate huge numbers in this sports-mad country. I'm not biased, but baseball really is a more exciting game. Golf, too. And they're relatively concise. Here, the regular programming on the publicly owned ABC Radio is superseded from 10 am to about 5 pm every day for a week, and cricket leads all the newscasts.

Australia narrowly beat India last week due mainly to bad umpiring, a matter on which everyone agrees. But, according to the Indian captain, "only one side was playing according to the spirit of the game." He was referring specifically to two incidents, where first the Aussie captain, then a star Aussie player, didn't "walk" -- that is, admit to being out -- even though they knew their hits had been caught out of the view of the incompetent umpire. The star Aussie admitted it at a press conference, leaving the inevitable conclusion that winning at any cost was what mattered to him and the team. Then, the Indian spin-bowler was suspended for allegedly calling the star Aussie player -- a big mixed-race bloke with dreadlocks -- a "monkey." This revived the racist atmosphere of the recent Indian tour, where fans constantly taunted him with "monkey" signs and jibes. And the newscasts have shown Indian fans burning effigies of the umpires in the streets. Zounds!

I won't live long enough to figure out the nuances of cricket, but I'm beginning to pay attention as the crisis, which all the news outlets are calling it, deepens. India is debating whether to withdraw from the series and depart from Australia, and cricket commentators are demanding the resignation of the Aussie captain for "not showing leadership."

But perhaps the "crisis" is beginning to lose its grip on the fickle public, at least those who read the newspapers. It's trumped by a bigger story: "our Nicole," the actor Nicole Kidman, is pregnant.

-And further to racism, I mentioned back in December how the new Australian government had arm-twisted Japan into sparing the 100 humpback whales it was proposing to kill as part of its bogus "scientific whaling" program. The Aussie government also promised to shadow the Japanese whaling fleet with a large customs ship, apparently to gather information for future action, but the ship is still stuck in port in Perth! So is this a back-down or what? Did the Japanese -- Australia's strategic ally and largest trading partner -- arm-twist right back? Is this the new Labor government confronting the realities of governing, not advocating?

Just to pour whale oil onto the fire, a Japanese-whaling fan added a video to YouTube called Racist Australia and Japanese Whaling. It was picked up by the television newscasts here last night. As you can see by the screenshot, it has a conciliatory tone that is sure to help resolve the issue.


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