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May 22, 2008: we took a road trip for a couple of days down to Canberra where there was a (very disappointing) art exhibition called The Triumph of Landscape: From Turner to Monet. It should have been called Lousy Landscapes with a Few Gems. But the countryside we saw for real was very beautiful and inspiring for the pôchades in my sketchbook. A highlight is always visiting the New South Wales country towns with their wonderful 19th-century architecture.

Roos rampant atop the old Mechanics' Institute in Yass,  a town of a few thousand near Canberra that a century ago was a contender for the role of national capital because it, like Canberra, was more or less half-way between the metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne. Unlike hilly Yass, which had been a town since the 1820s, Canberra was effectively a blank slate easily adapted to the ideals of grand urban planning. Canadians will recognize in this the saga of Ottawa aka "Queen Victoria's Revenge," equidistant more or less from Toronto and Montreal. And like the case of Ottawa, where nobody from Toronto, Montreal (or Vancouver) wants to move, Canberra is shunned: it's blazing in summer, freezing in winter and lacks a certain je ne sais quoi in the quality of its neighbourhoods and cultural scene. However, there have recently been billboards posted in the congested subway stations in Sydney stating, "If you lived in Canberra, you'd be home by now." Ditto for Adelaide, the quiet little capital city of South Australia, which has been advertising its easier, cheaper lifestyle to the drudges of the big cities.

-one of the few things I as a child knew about Australia, besides Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Koala Lumpur, was that it had a Flying Doctor Service to reach the remote stations of the Outback. The RFDS celebrated its 80th birthday last week.

-while we were away, the local JWs visited Roland's at Flat 2 and, finding him unwilling to answer the door, left this splendid brochure with cover by the noted religious artist Two-Moose Lautrec. How come he was so lucky, we asked ourselves?

Roland felt it provided a mystic connection with our upcoming trip to Canada, as it featured us with our Aussie tans in a recognizably bounteous northern landscape.

Ergo, the Oz-blog ends for a while as we're on a plane in two days for Vancouver to spend a few weeks. One of the reasons for the trip was because the City of Vancouver was planning the Mayor's Arts Awards, at which my Vancouver Remembered would formally receive its book prize and I would receive a much-needed fame injection. I put off booking as long as possible, to make sure they had confirmed the date for the ceremony on the 26th of May. Then an email arrived the other day saying, in effect, sorry we have to postpone the awards ceremony for a month -- will you still be here? I wonder often (increasingly often) why I bother.

-and finally, before we go away I wanted to put up the bare-bones beginnings of a new project, an A-Z from an immigrant's point-of view, just to get it out of mind and onto the (web)page. As with some of my previous projects, especially Vanishing British Columbia, it's going to grow on-line with suggestions from readers and hopefully become a publishable work. Look for old ads, new collages, watercolours, quotations, paintings and poems that illuminate the uniqueness of this country. For true-blue fair-dinkum Aussies, "ute" and "Chesty Bond" seem like normal words, but for the rest of us it's almost a new culture.

On a more serious level, Australia's unusual ways and forms are as much a victim of globalization as everybody else's. Things I've always noticed and admired, like the distinctive shopping streets with their continuous sun awnings, are disappearing as people flock to the "me-too" indoor malls that began to wreck North American cities two generations ago; architecture is changing, the wide-verandahed houses of the past giving way to McMansions and brick ranchers that wouldn't look out of place in the outskirts of Tulsa. So, not surprisingly for me, there's a "Vanishing Oz" component to it, too.

May 18, 2008: -amongst the terrible news of natural and bureaucratic disasters in Burma and China, it was a pleasure to read that the well-oiled machinery of the Australian state is working efficiently. Last week was the new federal government's first budget, which promised toughness to fight inflation but was the equivalent, according to some commentators, of being "whipped with a feather."

The opposition, led by Brendan "Nearly Departed" Nelson, leapt onto the "alcopops" supertax I wrote about in previous entries as an example of the unfairness of the budget. It will raise a staggering $3.2 billion, which indicates how many of them the (mainly young) drinkers are pounding; the latest is that sales of alcopops are down but bottles of hard grog are racing out the doors. The Greens are threatening not to support the bill in the Senate, which could kill it, unless the government allocates all of the windfall to anti-binging campaigns. The other uproar in the budget concerns the lack of a pension raise for hard-up seniors, leading to protests in which the aged have stripped to their underwear in front of the TV cameras. The fleshy scenes were mainly confined to the warm, tropical north and coastal regions -- it's suddenly become cold all across the tablelands and slopes, with a risk of a dusting of the dreaded snow in the Blue Mountains tonight.

- Friday was the monthly hike with the bushwalking club, a day that dawned rainy and windy but cleared in time for the 9 am start. The destination was Lunch Rock (for lunch, har  har) north of the railway whistlestop at Bell, the last stop before the line descends rapidly to the plains (originally on the famous Zig Zag Railway). As we walked through the bush, I was reflecting on how quiet it was compared with North American forests which are so animated by grouse, pheasants, squirrels, chipmunks, bears, etc. Yes you see and hear birds, but compared with the constant birdsong we have in our "edge conditions" at home in Katoomba, where we back onto a gulley and the cockatoos, parrots and kurrawongs feast on our gardens and trees, the bush is eerily silent. And the four-legged Australian fauna are almost all nocturnal, making after-dark car trips especially hazardous with wombats and wallabies commonly hanging out on the roadsides. So seeing this spider, in spite of its rather evil appearance (it was about 3 cm/ an inch-and-a-bit across) was a pleasant surprise. None of the bush-savvy walkers could identify it, though all agreed it bore a resemblance to the lethal, shiny-black funnelwebs that are common in the Sydney/Blue Mountains region. A review of the literature indicates it's a male mouse spider, like the funnelweb one of the ancient ground-dwelling spiders. "Males wander in the early winter," the literature says, "especially after rain." So it's a dangerous one, but it wanted to get out of our way. 

Lunch Rock, one of a number of basalt-topped sandstone outcroppings in that part of the mountains, stands up above a rolling, windswept heath. It's only about 10 metres high but commands a panoramic view over the surrounding parkland.

Nearby, the trail descended steeply towards the gorge of Wollangambe Creek --  a different spot from the one we waded through last month -- above which towers a sandstone outcropping. The white-trunked trees are Scribbly Gums.

May 11, 2008: Mother's Day, and it was a day of open gardens and entertainment in Mount Wilson, one of the remoter and more exclusive of the communities in the Blue Mountains, all to benefit research for Multiple Sclerosis. Christine spent the day touring the area's renowned gardens, splendid in their late-autumn colours, and took pictures for her blog, while I went to a boogie-woogie blues concert in a garden of one of the big old estates, Bisley.

Drawing is the grammar of art and I've been feeling a bit illiterate lately. The concert was an opportunity to draw people live, so I just took my little Moleskine sketchbook and laboured away in the cool afternoon light to get my hand working again. The art world divides into people who create space with lines and those who use patches of tone or colour. I've been in the latter group for a long time, and am reminded after an afternoon with just my pencil of Renoir's comment once he'd spent a few years trying to paint with Claude Monet: he said he "could neither draw nor paint anymore."

The band was led by blues pianist Jan Preston (accompanied by her husband on the washboard with spoons), but the star of the day was blues harmonicist Jim Conway, who is wheelchair-bound due to MS. A great concert!

Christine's stepbrother Graham, who lives in Mount Wilson with his wife Judy (a major organizing and catering talent in her own right), is the president of MS Australia. He gave a very illuminating talk about MS: that 3 times as many women as men get it, which is interesting, and that 7 times as many Australians in Hobart (as close as you can get to Antarctica without swimming) have it compared with tropical Aussies in northern Queensland, which is fascinating. According to Graham, Australia is in the forefront of MS research because of its great latitudinal range and its relatively homogeneous population.

- .... and now for something completely different ...

-in the May 4th entry below, I wrote about how "alcopops" -- the pre-mixed sweetened fizzy drinks favored by teenage binge-drinkers -- had just been surcharged by the federal government in an attempt to control the wild and violent drinking culture. In the news today was an update, from the Sydney beach suburb of Manly.

Just about everybody who comes to Sydney (and certainly everybody who talks to us), takes the ferry from Circular Quay to the inner-harbour side of Manly and walks along the Corso, a palm-graced mall, to the ocean-beach side. It is really beautiful -- one of the few places in Sydney where I would risk bankruptcy to settle. But according to the news, it's become a no-go zone on weekend nights because of the brawling and boozing of young people. So the charming old Steyne Hotel, one of a few on the strip, has just stopped selling the alcopops in an attempt to get the problem under control. Stay tuned ....

May 4, 2008: further to the story late last month about Troy Buswell, the Liberal leader of the opposition in "WA" (Western Australia) who admitted to sniffing the just-vacated seat of a female staff member, his tearful apology has only heightened the weirdness. It's also been confirmed that he snapped the bra-strap of another female staffer at a party and made inappropriate innuendos to others. Just another antediluvian bloke, you'd figure, except the newspapers have pictures of him with his wife, Margaret, an attractive, well-educated Aussie of Asian extraction, by his side. As for his future, there are now serious rumours of a leadership spill -- in Ozpeak, you "spill" leaders when you dump them or unhorse them. The disarray of the opposition is a break for the beleagured Labour government in WA, the most corrupt of the Labour State governments in this odd federation. The line in the national anthem, "We are girt by seas," should be sung as "We are girt by sleaze."

-big news this week was the huge surtax placed on "alcopops," the pre-mixed drinks sold in liquor stores that the federal government claims are an incentive to binge-drink. They apparently are mixed with lots of sugar so they taste like the fizzy pop teenagers have grown up with, and become like training wheels for Australia's booze-fueled youth culture. Some mix alcohol with caffeine-hyped soft drinks like Red Bull, to make the drunks more alert when the fists begin to fly. Statistics show that in 2000 about 14% of female teens drank them, but by 2004 the figure had risen to 60%. "Super nanny" Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, has promised that a large (unspecified) portion of the revenue windfall would go toward an education campaign. A caller to the ABC suggested that the campaign should focus on the impact of all the drinking on girls' waistlines (the "muffin top" of flab spilling over the tight waistbands of low-rider jeans): "tell 'em an evening's drinking is the same as eating 6 Big Macs!"

-a small victory was recorded a couple of weeks ago against a multinational corporate bully. Cadbury's lost its lawsuit against local candy maker Darryl Lea, in business since the 1920s, over the latter's use of the colour purple on its logo. The court ruled that Cadbury could not trademark a colour; at the very least it couldn't stop a competitor from continuing to use one. The iconic Violet Crumble bar (Christine's childhood favorite) also has purple packaging but has been immune so far from harassment, perhaps because it's made my multinational Nestlé.

-and further dispatches from this muddling country, the national rail system is back in the news as it will be unable to move the 26-million-ton grain crop to port later this year. This at a time of world food shortages and record grain prices! Bureaucratic inefficiencies, chronic union featherbedding, and generations of inaction by State and federal governments are to blame, say the farmers' representatives. The rail system is one of the longest-running jokes in the country: Mark Twain, more than a century ago, described his amusement at having to change trains at State borders because the line gauge wasn't consistent. According to the weekend paper, there are still 22 different line gauges in use in the country; on the specfic grain lines in Victoria, there are 2 different ones. The producers are, of course, resorting to truck transport. Environmental issues? Where?


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