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March 29, 2008: There's much that is serious for me to be writing about:

- tonight is Earth Hour, so we will be switching off all the power and dining between 8 and 9 in the romantic glow of our wind-up LED flashlight. Somehow lighting all the candles in the house doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the energy-conserving, anti-greenhouse gas event...

- most of the local (that is, State) news concerns incompetence and corruption in the government. I think the one guarantee of lifetime employment in this country would be service on an anti-corruption commission. A short list of recent events involving the governing Labor party includes:
1) the conviction of the former aboriginal affairs minister on multiple accounts of sexual assault and providing drugs to minors;
2) the dismissal of Wollongong Council ("the Gong" is an industrial city on the coast south of Sydney) following widespread evidence of corrupt dealing with developers with Labor Party connections, including a senior planner who was sleeping with one of the developers and was then blackmailed by his associates;
3) price-fixing by the petrol companies appears impossible to stop. It was mere coincidence, they said, that the prices at the pump for all brands went up 16 cents a litre last Thursday afternoon, just as people were fueling up to go away for the Easter weekend. The government watchdogs have been unable to find any evidence of malfeasance or collusion;
4) the cost of living is going through the roof (9.5% mortgages, for example)yet the government can't seem to come up with enough buses to transport the commuters who are being forced out of their cars. But aren't there a couple of huge garages full of new buses that aren't being used? That's because another branch of the State government says they're "too heavy" to be licensed for the roads. And so on....

- binge drinking by young people is epidemic. Beatings, car crashes -- you name it.
Following pressure by the federal government, distillers agreed to withdraw a few of their popular pre-mixed cocktails which combine high alcohol levels with loads of caffeine. No wonder so many people were going feral.

With all this bad news around, what better than to go to the fair? It's bread and circuses in Oz! Christine and I caught the train yesterday morning and met up with sister Caroline at the Sydney Royal Easter Show at Olympic Park, the biggest "fall fair" I've ever seen.

Readers of the blog will recall (or scroll down to see) that we began autumn at the start of March with a visit to the show in Bathurst. It's one of the warmups for the biggie in Sydney, which brings country people in from all over the State to display their produce and mingle and deal. It was a superb agricultural show, mixed with the usual fairground attractions such as a midway, many barf-inducing rides, and urban attractions such as swimming-pool sales and home-improvement trinkets.

The different regions of the State compete for the best display -- here are four of the six, where the landscape is created from artfully arranged fruit and veggies. Christine had been raving about this for yonks, having remembered it from her childhood, the last time she attended the Royal Easter Show, and it didn't disappoint.

Cakes,  embroidery, leather stock whips, bookbinding, a myriad other crafts -- all displayed and competing for prizes ....

... There was art by children and adults ...

Beef and beef on display ....

More beef of the bovine variety ...

Porcine bliss -- #4 hasn't got the program figured out ....

The vertical woodchop. The competitors had just completed the horizontal chop, in which they stand on a log and chop it in two between their legs (points deducted for severing a foot). There was one Canadian in the race who, alas, came last, as his axe kept sticking in the log at each chop. Maybe he could only get one axe in the overhead bin on the flight down? He had previously finished 2nd in the axe throw....

... and, as at every show, there was quality merchandise for sale.

March 21, 2008:

The day before Good Friday, and it was the monthly hike with the bushwalking club.

Fortunately it was a beautiful, warm day, as the route took us along a canyon through the "river caves" along Budgary Creek, near the imaginatively named Rock Hill in Wollemi National Park -- it's the park to the north of us where the "living fossil" Wollemi Pine was discovered several years ago.

So, a steep hike down (all the walks here involve  walking downwards to start, as we live on the plateaus here and descend into the valleys), then a beautiful, unphotographable trip wading and scrambling along the creek, at some points underground and in water at mid-thigh level (that's Christine on the right). Then a thigh-screaming climb up through the sunny, hot bush back to the starting point. The walk, including a break for tea aka muesli bar in the morning and a leisurely lunch along the creek, took about 4 or 5 hours.

The group settling down for morning tea in the valley above the river canyon...

One of the keyhole views from down in the canyon -- this was the spot where we stopped for lunch.  A camera (my camera?) just doesn't give a sense of the scale of the sheer sandstone walls.

March 16, 2008:

When things are going well in Katoomba they go very well indeed. This has been a memorable weekend due to the 13th annual Blue Mountains Music Festival, taking place about a 10-minute walk from here on the grounds of the elementary school, in an adjoining hotel and the back bar of the RSL Club (Returned Servicemen's League: like the Legion in North America, but bigger, one-in-every-town, with beer, food and "pokies" aka poker machines keeping bums in seats 7 days a week).

I am on such a high after two days of listening to musicians from all over the world. But it was the "western swing" of Elana James, the wild trailer-park lyrics of Truckstop Honeymoon and the astonishing young Australian rocker Kate Miller-Heidke that surprised me the most. Genticorum made me nostalgic for Québécois accents and the quirkiness of that musical culture. Barry and Moira in Victoria, ya shoulda bin heah!

A final thought before presenting some grainy, low-light pictures from my cheap camera: these are internationally touring musicians, yet they hump their own CDs around and sell them personally at the end of their shows, then drop in to listen to the other performances. For me there was an echo of being on the road on a book tour or at a writer's festival (except that books are heavier than CDs), working a crowd and then trying to sell them a piece of yourself at the end of the gig. I always thought that we labourers in the trenches of the book world were poor cousins, as it were, and had forgotten that direct selling is also the lot even of working musicians.

Kate Fagan, an Australian folk-roots songwriter, accompanied by renowned flat-picker Robbie Long.

Elana James -- the trio of Whit Smith, Elana James and Jake Erwin -- formerly of the Hot Club of Cowtown, performing the most abandoned western swing. It was totally unexpected that I would like this, but the combination of her fiddle, a sweet Norah Jones-like voice on songs like Dylan's "One More Night" from Nashville Skyline, Smith's terrific guitar, and Erwin's slap base made it a stand-out. I took in two of their concerts and a workshop by Smith and Erwin talking about the evolution of guitar and base-playing styles.  James toured with Dylan in 2005.

Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.  One song I remembered had a verse in it that went, "Has it really come to this ? / Jazz in the bookshops and books in the cafes ...."

Truckstop Honeymoon -- Katie Euliss on the doghouse bass and Mike West on guitar and banjo. Very funny downmarket Americana. They told the story of leaving New Orleans after Katrina and moving as far away as they could get from the sea, which turned out to be Lawrence Kansas (scene of the post-nuclear holocaust movie The Day After, I recall).

I expected to like Kristina Olsen of "the school of love 'em and leave 'em good time folkie jazzbo women," and did, especially her duets with Australian cellist and mandolin player Peter Grayling. One of her best lines was "the blues is 3 chords played to millions, while jazz is a million chords played to 3 people."

Kate Miller-Heidke and her powerhouse band.  It was like Blondie crossed with Kate Bush and spiked with steroids, or maybe amphetamines: absolutely acid-tongued lyrics and songs that were at one moment quiet and reflective, the next moment ear-bleedingly rocking.

March 15, 2008:

Roland Hemmert is our neighbour who lives in Flat 2. He is well-established as a landscape painter in the Mountains and had a very successful show last winter. And, finally, he's put his work up on the web! So (drum roll... ) you can see his paintings, pastels and field sketches at

He has a really modernist twist to colour and form without losing track of such essentials as 3-dimensional space and a horizon line. Yes, I'm terribly old-fashioned to think those things are important. Particularly check out, in his oil paintings sections, the "stone country" paintings for which he's well known. As we go through the countryside here, we see scenes that make us say, "oh, that's a real Hemmert landscape," whereas he says when he comes upon long views from high places, "that's a Kluckner landscape."

March 14, 2008:

Now that it's officially autumn, the weather is summer-like every day with temps in the mid to high 20s. We've been getting out to a variety of places, including a trip into Sydney yesterday that included a run out to Mona Vale Beach where we used to spend oodles of time 25 years ago in our pre-ozone depletion, who's-heard of-skin-cancer youths. A little swimming in the surf ensued, followed by modest basking in the shade of our "Shelta" beach umbrella -- it was quite a calm day with a swell of about a metre, so I won't end up needing months of chiropractic care to get over it.

The local trips to spots in the Blue Mountains National Park continue to be the most interesting. Christine wanted to return to Pulpit Rock (photo on right) as there were some interesting plants for her to photograph for her blog, and it was a perfect day for me to sit in the sun and paint. Pulpit Rock is vertiginous in a way that most of the other Blue Mountains sites aren't: elsewhere, if you fell off, your fall would be perhaps delayed slightly by hitting the branch of a tree, or a narrow ledge, after the first 100 or so metres of descent. But this one is sheer: you're standing on the top of a column that drops away vertically to the valley floor.

One of the sidelines on trips such as these is watching the backpackers. Will they say: "that fence isn't there for me"? As we watched the couple below, who'd climbed over the fence in order to have a more cool place to read their books and take pictures of each other for their FaceBook pages, we wondered about their sense of the Extreme. Perhaps in their working lives they're accountants who want to be lion tamers, and would actually do so if they had the chance (unlike the Monty Python character).

The woman, who was reading a book called Man Eaters, looked almost safe compared with the man, whose feet are visible right on the cliff edge.

Meanwhile, the cautious, conservative, aging landscape painter sits with his sketchbook well back from the edge, trying to concentrate on issues of bright sunshine and deep blue shade, capturing the vastness without overpainting it, not thinking about the attractive young strangers nearby risking a plunge to their deaths ....
March 2, 2008:
So my entry into the Archibald Prize for portraiture didn't "get the tick" with the judges. As described last month, I did a large (for me) oil of Kenneth Tribe, Christine's 93 year-old stepfather, and entered into the Archibald -- the biggest art prize in Australasia. It was a longshot at best but an interesting exercise in (my) hubris. Generally, you have to enter for years to get known, etc. etc.

Reviewing the selected ones out of the 700+ entries,  I was interested to see that almost every picture was of a full-on face -- i.e. two eyes, nose, details of mouth etc. They were, in my opinion, mostly "pictures of people" rather than portraits, and many had little interpretation to them, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? Grumble grumble. My picture of a distinctive profile with little facial detail was obviously not the style of picture the judges were after.

Having been spurned by Sydney's high-art elite, we sought solace in agriculture and took ourselves off yesterday to the Royal Bathurst Show. Bathurst is a town of about 40,000 established in 1815 -- the first town to the west of the Blue Mountains, 100 km from where we live in Katoomba. (The building of a road over the Blue Mountains "saved the colony of New South Wales," which didn't have enough fertile land on the coastal strip near Sydney for survival; Bathurst became the first administrative and supply centre for the inland plains.) Its show is one of the regional fall fairs, not that they're called that here, leading to the big Royal Easter Show in Sydney. And what could be more comforting than inspecting sheep?

The fairgrounds host a great collection of vintage buildings from the 1880s and 1890s.  This shows the wood and metal decoration on the building holding the sheep, erected in 1886.

Judging the ram lambs ....

A merino ram.  As sheep go, merinos are not the best-looking (they've been "hit by the ugly stick," to use a currrent expression) but their fine wool is considered the best in the world and they're the basis of the Aussie wool industry.

Now that's more like it! A Corriedale ewe lamb. So pretty! Actually, these Corriedales were dead-ringers for the sheep we ended up with on the farm in Canada: we had bred Romneys with a variant called a Seagrave which gave us the same cute white face and lightly woolled legs.

No agricultural show is complete without sheep-dog trials. There were no pigs named Babe in this one. The dog here responded brilliantly to the most subtle commands: one finger held up stopped him, a few fingers moved him closer ...

 The midway had a range of the typical games -- throw darts at a balloon and win a junky prize, that sort of thing. But a few I'd never seen before -- they weren't part of my memories from North American shows like the PNE in Vancouver. One was called "Smash the Dolly," which had a particularly modern sound to it.  And there were three or four booths of "Laughing Clowns," which Christine remembered from her childhood.

The clowns' heads turn from side to side. The idea is to stuff a ball into the mouth at the right time, when the mouth is at the right angle, so the ball lands in one of the lucky slots in the tray below. The lucky numbers, which win you a junky prize, are posted on the wall behind.

It looked like a real bore to me, but she swore it was very difficult to do successfully. Children were more easily entertained then, I suppose.

Another highlight of her remembered fairs were the Show Bags: for a few dollars (a few shillings then) you got a sample bag from your favorite candy company or whatever, usually containing a junky prize like a whistle you could use to annoy the neighbourhood dogs and adults.

A mini ferris wheel for the kiddies: a beautifully compact machine that would disassemble easily for transport by a truck to the next show a few miles down the road.

A more standard amusement park ride. The guy in the foreground was wisely wearing a hat as he was within the barf zone, by my calculation ....

And, there was a dog show! When they say in press releases that "100 odd people exhibited," they're definitely referring to these guys.  By comparison, the cat show was a disappointment: cages full of surly pure-breds. The moggie show was set for the following day, alas ....

The back window of the truck of one of the exhibitors ....

And that's how we spent the first day of autumn.


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