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We're living at the Elizabeth Flats, a 1936 art deco triplex in Katoomba, the largest town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

The address is Flat 1, 21 Warialda Street, Katoomba, NSW Australia 2780.

  There is a separate web page with more pictures of our new home and its surroundings.

May 29, 2007: posted from Melbourne.
Fabulous day driving through agricultural Australia, beginning in the mountains west of our home in Katoomba. Tremendous scenery on the way to Oberon, which has an art deco building to die for (this photo's for Don Luxton):

Two of the four old hotels left in Grenfell, a wool town fallen on hard times due to the drought and the Great Polyester Conspiracy, on the highway west of Bathurst:

Further miles and miles through the countryside, sketching along the way, then picking up speed before the late May sun crashed into the western horizon at about 5 in the afternoon. Christine pointing the camera out the window and pressing the button repeatedly. Winter crops of wheat and barley planted on the basis of a 50 mm rain over the past month:

Cameo Inn, West Wyalong in the well-named Shire of Bland, southwestern New South Wales. A motel on the edge of a town that's borderline hard-times. Had the only restaurant open on a Saturday night, other than the Paragon Cafe which specialized in fish 'n chips, a bit chancy as we were 500 kilometres inland. Restaurant had Hollywood theme with authentic '93 mural, supplemented by collection of limited-edition plaques commemorating early Aussie rockers like Col Joye and Normie Rowe, dimly remembered by Christine.

Huge portions in the restaurant. "Yoah in tha country, myte," says the ample woman who owns the motel/serves in the restaurant. She also calls Christine "mate." Friendly good service etc. etc. Drink way too much Wolf Blass Cabernet Merlot and, needless to say, eat too much.


Sunday morning, get up early and foolishly decide we won't get a coffee in the motel before we go. Instead we drive, albeit through beautiful wheatfields, for 145 km before we find a town with a cafe.

Finally arrive in the Riverina, the district around the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in the southwestern corner of New South Wales. The MIA was founded about a century ago by visionaries who saw the possibilities of growing rice and fruit on the flat land bordering the Murrumbidgee River, which joins the Murray further to the west. Rice in Australia? Those were wetter times. Leeton is the big agricultural town; in those palmy days of a century ago, American architect and planner Walter Burley Griffin laid it out as a model community. You realize the political power of these irrigation and agribusiness companies when you read that Sunrice, the big grower, is an $800 million a year business.

The Riverina is criss-crossed with irrigation canals and ditches, mostly full, while the "The Mighty Murray" River is reduced to little more than trickle. We swing south from it into Victoria and follow the Goulburn Valley, stopping at the Tahbilk Winery, founded in 1860, the oldest winery in the state. The Goulburn River appears to be in good shape. Tahbilk and the neighbouring big winery. Mitchelton, are cooperating with Land Care Australia  to preserve the wetlands bordering the river on the section that flows through their beautiful estates.

Tahbilk's "new cellar," excavated in 1875, has a barrel-vaulted roof without a keystone. The photo below shows one of the 5 metre high by 3 metre wide by 2 metre deep walls of bottles full of aging wine.


Melbourne, the reason for the trip, to see the Australian Impressionism exhibition at the new National Gallery of Victoria. This group of landscape artists, especially Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder, have an iconic status here like the Group of Seven's in Canada. Suffice it to say that the show was worth it, although it included an incredible amount of very sentimental Victoriana by famous but (to me) less worthy artists like Frederic McCubbin. The show rooms were thronged by grey-haired fans and raucous schoolchildren, whereas the adjoining galleries of the permanent collections of this huge museum were almost empty. A millennial blockbuster show, widely publicized, and attracting people who probably don't get to a gallery at any other time.

The gallery is part of the new Federation Square, an attempt by Melbourne to create a signature destination to rival Sydney's opera house. Melbourne is quite like Toronto: about 4 million people, a flat site, extreme climate and many wonderful examples of architecture from the 1860s on. Gordon Price, ex-councillor and Vancouver urbanist, visited it a few months ago and left his impressions in his Price Tags newsletter. As for the buildings themselves, they're a bit of a train wreck, plopped on the site without any reference to the surrounding city, and the square seems to be an orphan, but apparently it fills up with enthusiastic locals whenever there's a festival or event.

And it rained. We took refuge in the bar across from the restored Flinders Street station, which borders Federation Square.

After most of the day looking at high culture, we ploughed our way through the huge Queen Victoria Markets in North Melbourne, a wonderful emporium of everything from the sublime to the grotesque.

I think the kangaroo object was a bottle opener, the successor to kangaroo-paw ones from an earlier generation. Note the stuffed cane toads (or are they plastic?) also for sale.

May 25, 2007: It's cold as charity, at least compared with what we're used to. Pauline, a friend who's lived in nearby Leura for yonks, says that "when it gets below 7 you really begin to notice it." Last night it was about 5, tonight it's going to be 3, but by comparison, some of the agricultural towns further inland have had overnight lows in the -4 region. So big deal, say all the Canadians, except when you look at the way the houses here were built. Thin timbers, fibro-cement wall panels and no insulation, and of course no central heating. It reminds me of the old statement about England, where they don't bother heating the houses because it doesn't get cold enough to kill you, except that the climate here is more like San Francisco than London. The good news is that the humidity is really low and the sun is still warm, so daytime temperatures under clear skies are still about 15 or 16. Sydney, by comparison with us here in the Blue Mountains, has lows of about 14 or 15 and highs about 20 or 21. We rationalize the frigidity here by enjoying our much more temperate summers, without the humidity that renders Sydney sticky and awful. Think Toronto summers, but in a nicer setting.

Part of the Blue Mountains legend is electric blankets. I can remember when electric blankets were (briefly) popular in the '60s in Canada, but you put them over you and basked in the ELF radiation while heating the room more than you. Here, the blankets have always been put under the bottom sheet, heat the bed, and then are turned off when you get in. An evolution of the old coals-in-the-copper-pan method to warm the sheets in English country houses.

-There's been a lot of news about aborigines lately: the 40th anniversary of a national referendum that was to extend all rights and recognition to them as a people, the reality that their life expectancy is still far below that of non-aborigines, the refusal of the prime minister on the 10th anniversary of the "Stolen Generation" report to apologize for past errors, and the statement today by the federal minister that all aboriginal children must be taught English at school. Apparently in some communities the bias is toward the indigenous languages, which are spoken by very few people, and the government argues that without English the children are doomed to being disadvantaged in terms of economic opportunities and mobility. "Critics" say that the government should do more to keep aboriginal languages alive. In one aboriginal area up at the "Top End" aka "The Big Wet," way up in the north, a government proposal to encourage individual ownership of homes on reserves was torn apart by critics and aboriginal representatives, who said individual ownership was un-aboriginal. So the issues are much the same here as they are, for example, in Canada.

-We had dinner at Roland's flat with his friend Pauline, mentioned above, who had just returned from one of her regular trips doing community work with aboriginal women in the Outback. She drives by herself a couple of times a year in her old van to Alice Springs, way out west, which is the base for the work she does. She talked about how when she was 13 her family lived in the States because her father, an academic, had a posting in Durham, North Carolina. One year they drove to California, and she fell in love with the desert.

She described how in May every year, as the searing heat of the summer ends, a migration begins of "grey nomads" to explore Outback Australia. Her descriptions of the desert and the people were so lyrical that we have talked of little else since.

But in the short term we're going to Melbourne. There's a major exhibition of Australian Impressionism there. We'll return via the coast, then cut inland to Canberra, where there's a huge exhibition of Australian printmaking. A roadtrip for art. The blog will resume in June.

May 22, 2007: 
-The "entrenched blokiness" of Australian politics, and by extension Australian society, has been under the magnifying glass in recent days. The childless, career-oriented deputy leader of the Labour Party, Julia Gillard, was described by a Liberal senator as "deliberately barren" and thus "unfit to lead." The audacity of his sexism caused a media outrage, followed by a demand for an apology from the prime minister. 28% of the Australian members of parliament are women. 59% of the electorate says they will vote Labour at the next election.

-Snow here yesterday.  Not here, but here, i.e. in Australia, in the Snowy down near Thredbo a few hundred kilometres south. But it's cold as hell here, too, low of 6 and high of 9 in bright sun with a wind as sharp as sciatica. Temperatures should return to something warmer later in the week, with highs of about 15 or 16 and staying sunny.
May 20, 2007: -according to the Australian, the forthcoming APEC summit is going to turn central Sydney into an armed camp, with police given martial-law powers over specific areas. So it will be even more clamped down than during the recent visit of US VP Cheney, who was greeted by protesters carrying signs stating "Take [PM John] Howard Hunting."

The significant declaration, also according to the Australian, will be a carbon-trading scheme and emissions-reduction targets for the region, which will include all the main Kyoto holdouts: China, the USA, Australia and, they say, India. Combined with the Howard government's recent announcement of $200 million to fight tropical rainforest deforestation, especially in Indonesia, the climate-change agreement is another attempt by Howard and his government to position themselves the upcoming (southern) spring election. And, less cynically, to do something about climate change.

- We have finally given up on the DVDs available from the local library. Most of them are so lunched that they skip, freeze, or unexpectedly back up 15 minutes, making viewing impossible. So to continue our deep exploration of local culture we've joined the local video store. Aussie films were very trendy, very popular, for many years, but seem to have fallen into a slump recently. Nevertheless, Christine was a bit taken aback when she asked where the Australian films were. "Oh, they're over beyond the 'Adult' section," said the young employee. Shades of Canada, where spotting the locally made films can require a GPS system.

-TV is the best window onto pop culture, and the Australian shows are distinctive, to say the least. They are not at all afraid of talking-heads interview shows and quiz/game shows, produced on shoestring budgets in front of live audiences. The best one is RocKwiz on the weird SBS network, the alternative to the ABC public broadcaster best known for its world newscasts and soft-core porn/erotica post-10 pm programming. It reminds me a lot of Quebec TV: we don't have a clue who the people are, it's all rather slapdash, but it's great fun to watch.

RocKwiz features two teams of 3, consisting of 2 fairly nerdy rock-trivia types on each, the sort of people you'd see in a bar playing the trivia video games, supplemented by a local rock star or singer, people completely unknown to us. Some of these people have been around for yonks, apparently, while others are young one-hit wonders. The rock star/singers do a tune each, then the quiz begins, hosted by a scathing, funny woman named Julia Zemiro, who manages to get off the most flip one-liners without ever becoming actually insulting. The score for the game is provided by a tattooed bloke wearing shorts and a wife-beater (i.e. an undershirt) who appears from the gloom at the back of the stage carrying two pieces of cardboard with hand-written numbers on them. At the end of the show, the 2 stars perform a duet with the RocKwiz Orkestra, a tight little bar band that also plays the segues and clues. All this takes place in what is obviously a pub, with an audience of a hundred or so sitting at round tables and drinking their faces off. What could be better?

-a few readers of the blog commiserated with me about our ceiling and sent along their own experiences, which mainly involved taking the old one down and gyprocing a new one. Our restoration is working out okay, mainly due to the curiously flexible horse-hair plaster boards that were used here in the '30s, although it is the closest thing to lifetime employment I've ever experienced. The poor picture below shows the ceiling, the cracking, the horse hair and the flat washers I've screwed to the joists to prop it all up.

May 15, 2007: -Australian babes are, apparently, one-third of the can-can dancers at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, according to an item on what we call the "silly newscast" on Channel 7, one of the five free non-cable stations we can get here. (Yes, we have an antenna on the roof, just like Vancouver in the 1950s, but it doesn't have seagulls perching on it.) An admirable achievement for a country of 20 million, perhaps, but not so unexpected as it seems that ballroom dancing is to Oz what ice dancing is to North America. There are kitschy dancing competitions regularly on the telly and, of course, the bizarre Baz Luhrmann flicks, including Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, starring "Our Nicole" [Kidman], as she is known here.

-One topic almost completely absent from public discourse here is .... guess. Do I see any hands up for health care? Yes? No? There is almost nothing about it in the papers, on the radio or the TV news. Does this mean that Australians have a wonderful health care system? After years in Canada during which little got done during election campaigns other than hand wringing, duck shoving (i.e. buck passing) and finger pointing about the state of the health system, and little was said in the media other than bitching, I find it weird to read or hear nothing about overcrowded emergency wards, dying patients bused hundreds of kilometres, huge overruns in state health budgets, etc.

Everyone here gets a basic Medicare, which gives them access to the GP of their choice, and any operations they need. It appears (although I'm not completely clear on this yet) that everything else, including hospital stays, specialists, drugs and of course therapists/chiropractors/dentists/optometrists, is paid by the individual or by private plans like Blue Cross that individualists can buy into. Employer-paid extended-health plans don't seem to be a big deal.

You simply don't hear people complaining about health care. Perhaps people have autres chats à fouetter (other cats to whip, as the French would say). But an article in the weekend paper by a Tasmanian GP called health care a "looming crisis" and castigated the federal government for ignoring it in last week's budget. However, the big split he was describing was between rural medicine and the good services city people enjoy, something that Canadians can identify with. "A depleted, demoralised and aging workforce" was holding the medical system together, he wrote.

-Defying all predictions, the Coalition didn't get a bounce in the opinion polls from its budget. Labour is up 2 points, now leading 59 to 41. My bet is that John Howard will suddenly resign as prime minister, after 10 years and 4 victorious elections, to be replaced by his treasurer Peter Costello (the Gordon Brown of Australia, to use the current British example), who will unsuccessfully try to present himself as a new leader and government. Any takers?
May 14, 2007: I have excuses for not working diligently on the blog -- my brother's visit, during which we hiked our legs off, and, of course, the ongoing efforts to restore the Elizabeth Flats. The latest challenge has been the sagging plaster ceiling in the Flat 1 "lounge room" aka livingroom, which I'm repairing with long screws and big flat washers. The ceiling is sheathed in horse-hair plaster panels that were nailed to the ceiling joists 70 years ago and have gradually sagged as the nails have shrunk away from the wood.

Katoomba Falls from midway down the Ferber Steps, which descend 250 metres into the valley below Katoomba. The top of the trail is about a 10 minute walk from our home.

On the Ferber Steps part way down the escarpment

Challenged people, including us but definitely excluding young Germans, descend the steps but take the funicular railway, built in the 1870s to haul coal up the cliff to the main rail line, to get back up to the top of the escarpment.

-the George Bush billboard spotted and photographed on the M4 (see April 20th) has disappeared. Is it a conspiracy by pro-American Australians? Roving bands of Karl Roves obliterating all anti-Bush satire? Who knows, but my brother spotted one still posted on the Princes Highway leading south from Sydney.

-the Howard (federal) government has ordered the Aussie cricket team not to tour Zimbabwe, thus putting to an end an interesting philosophical debate about government and sport. The prime minister described Mugabe as a "grubby dictator" and said the regime had been behaving like Gestapo toward the Zimbabwean opposition, strong words from a deeply conservative, laissez-faire politician. Could there be an election pending? What law was the government using to ban them? asked sports-mad callers to an ABC radio show. Eleven Aussie blokes could play cricket there if they wished, suggested others, as long as they didn't say they're representing Australia. What about the basketball team that's playing in North Korea? What about the oppressive Chinese? cried some. And, it's not about sport, it's about money, said the more cynical and astute.

-the great excitement here today was an inadvertent consequence of all the renovations we're doing. As part of the massive wealth transfer taking place from us to the tradesmen of the Blue Mountains, we had workers installing new linoleum on the kitchen floors of our Flat 1 and Roland's Flat 2 upstairs. Roland's is the least altered of the 3 flats, and underneath a deteriorated layer of 20+ year-old lino was another, classic '30s deco one with, beneath it, a lining of newspapers: Sydney Morning Heralds from late in 1936, including one with Edward VIII's abdication statement. The building was just being completed when the King abdicated, replaced on the throne by George VI and his young queen Elizabeth. Ergo, the Elizabeth Flats, we presume.

The salvaged newspapers are awaiting closer examination, with a full report coming asap, plus photos of the original 1936 linoleum especially for deco fans like Don and Jim.

-Major rain predicted for the parched areas to the west of us for later in the week! We don't need any here, as we had 15 mm last Thursday, but the drought is so bad that even people like us, who came here specifically to study the effects of regular sunshine on the state-of-mind, will put up with a few days of it.

May 8, 2007: Further notes to current events:

-springtime in Vancouver to me meant painting freighters in English Bay, often against the piled-up clouds and dramatic light of stormy days. Well, enjoying the blossoms and planting vegetables, too.

Every freighter anchored in English Bay is, perhaps, an opportunity for a sentimental painter like me but also a statement of insufficient infrastructure and inefficiency in the economy!!! Someone must be blamed!!!! Imagine the situation here: Australia is claimed to be the world's largest coal exporter, and there are on average 100 ships waiting off east-coast ports, especially Newcastle an hour or so north of Sydney, waiting to load. The destination is China, where a new coal-fired power plant is opening every 5 minutes or so. So the debate about the sequestration of carbon dioxide is really heating up here, no pun intended. "Clean coal" is a buzzword for every politician, except for the Greens who believe all our computers can be kept running with wind and solar.

-tonight is Budget night, federally. Australia has no "net debt," thus no interest payments, and a $13.6 billion surplus. It has given some tax breaks and very modest incentives for solar power, etc., that would benefit people like us. The country is flush with money, as someone just said on TV, but the government has not attempted to give it all away to try to win the next (October?) election. Treasurer Peter Costello is a Paul Martin-like figure, very competent yet waiting in the wings for his boss, John Howard, to retire. More loyal than Martin was, it seems. Regardless, Labour is way ahead in the polls, and people seem to be ready for a change. (The ABC-TV ran the treasurer's budget speech in total, then showed an hour's analysis by its pundits, including an interview with the treasurer; it's quite a contrast with the CBC, which shows a few minutes of the finance minister interspersed with comments by pundits and comedians.)

-The failed attempt by "private equity" to buy Qantas collapsed with great finality today. Turns out, at the last minute, the Aussie-American-Canadian consortium attempted to salvage its bid referred to the other day, after the deadline, and then threatened a lawsuit against the government regulator that had said "no." The final final bid involved the consortium violating the foreign-ownership rules that the government laid down; the treasurer took time out from his budget today to remark that they'd better get that straightened out right away.

-another curiosity: the world-champion Australian cricket team (they've just won easily the tournament held in the Caribbean) is being urged by everyone to cancel a planned cricket trip to Zimbabwe. Even the conservative, laissez-faire Howard government is telling them not to go, and offering to pay fines up to $2 million if the team doesn't show. The image of the Aussies shaking hands with Mugabe is a bit much even for the sports fanatics here.

May 7, 2007: Time for a news round-up:

- the papers and newscasts have been dominated by the sudden, unexpected collapse of the bid by a private equity consortium to buy Qantas. An American billionaire "corporate raider" named Samuel Heyman pulled out at the last hour and scuppered the bid, which was led by the Aussie raider Macquarie Bank and had as a minor partner Onex, the Toronto company owned by Gerry Schwarz whose wife is the shopkeeper of Chapters. The Qantas workers and the general public seemed pleased, as the deal was just about money money money and wasn't going to improve anything, as far as anyone could see.

-it's 40 years since a referendum here gave almost 91% approval to constitutional changes that led to the repeal of all discriminatory laws against Aborigines. But complete reconciliation seems elusive, as the prime minister has refused to apologize on behalf of the nation for past injustices. And there was an interesting article talking about the Freedom Bus of 1965, packed with activists mainly from the University of Sydney, which set out to expose the racism in New South Wales towns, paralleling the famous Freedom Rides of the American south.

-in late April I mentioned the Anzac Day celebrations here, the 92nd anniversary of the disastrous Galliipoli landings in Turkey by the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps -- the first action of a solely Australian military unit. A few days after, the newspaper quoted a historian named John Hirst summing up the significance of Australia's "most solemn national day." In spite of the achievement of the colonists in creating vibrant democracies and the federation of the country in 1901, he said the key to Australian political psychology at the time was "a gnawing sense of colonial inferiority." Nevertheless, the months at Gallipoli revealed key elements of the national character: they were "innocent and fit, stoical and laconic, irreverent in the face of hidebound authority, naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences. Above all, in times of trouble, they stood by their mates."

There have been interesting attempts by politicians since, the article said, to transfer the Anzac story to new territory. Labour Prime Minister Paul Keating tried in the 90s to replace Gallipoli with Kokoda, in New Guinea in WWII, where Aussies fought in their own region in defence of their own country, but in spite of his efforts Gallipoli "remains Australia's only sacred soil." And the current PM, John Howard, was going to fail in "his attempt to strip from the story of Gallipoli the sense of war's ultimate futility and to graft it onto something he calls 'the great Australian military tradition'" stretching all the way to Iraq. But interestingly, Iraq doesn't look to be a big election issue here: labour laws will trump it.

- on a more local note, a psychologist advertised in the paper under the headline "Spider Phobia Group -- fix your spider phobia in 3 hours. Bookings essential as group limited to 3. See

-an on a more personal note, we spent some of the past week in Sydney touring around with our guests from Canada.

Niece Madeleine Coulson (in the middle) performing at the Broadway Bar as part of her exams for the Australian Institute of Music. Students had to put together a band and sing a couple of songs each during an evening that ranged from blues to punk, all at deafening volume.

The weather has been beautiful, almost back to summertime temperatures, so we ate fish and chips outside at Balmoral Beach in Sydney and walked along the shore after dark. One of the bays has a big net across it that might give illiterates a false sense of security.

.... and stayed with daughter Sarah Jane, whose megacat Cyrus always seeks out the patch of morning sunshine on the carpet.
May 2, 2007: The blog has come to a halt because of the visit of my brother Paul and his companion Bonny.

Bonny, Paul, Christine and me at Boar's Head, 5 pm May 2nd, photographed by our friend from Flat 2, Roland Hemmert.

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