Sydney Harbour at dusk. NSW, Australia

It’s quite easy when you live in Sydney to forget about how beautiful our harbour is and take it for granted. The greater metropolitan area of Sydney is a pretty big place covering 12,144 square kms (about 4,688 square miles) with a population of 4,254,900 and believe it or not, most of us don’t have harbor views from our homes. For many of us, going downtown is a time consuming drag that we tend to avoid in our leisure. The weather has been getting much cooler lately as winter approaches, which means there are far less tourists than usual around the Circular Quay area. So on the way to the theatre last night I took the opportunity to take these shots of Sydney Harbour.  It was enjoyable to walk around the waterfront without the summer crowds.

Circular Quay

The Sydney Opera still delights me every time I see it. It’s an amazing structure and it’s even more amazing that it was ever built when one considers how conservative Australia is at times. The large building to the right of the Opera House, known as, “The Toaster” is a testament to greed and poor taste combined with political short sightedness. How the Toaster was ever approved, when it was so universally denounced by the public, I’ll never know, but it seems such a bloody minded decision that I can’t help but feel that it has the stink of corruption about it.

Opera House and Toaster

And of course there is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, our beloved “coat hanger”.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Art of War. Sydney Theatre Company

Last night I went to see a performance of the excellent new work “The Art of War” by Stephen Jeffreys. The Art of War was specially commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company, Actors Company. Yes the play is based on the very ancient and famous work of the same name by Sun Tzu.

Although it is an old text, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still often quoted today, especially in the world of business. This new play addresses Sun Tzu’s philosophy in the context of the play’s three interlinked stories of, love, business and war.

John Gaden (photo by Tania Kelly)

The first act of the play starts off at a cracking pace and the ideas come one after the other like machine gunned crystal to the brain. I absolutely loved the way how the writing presented the ideas in exciting ways. Everything looked so clear, so relevant. It really does look like “The Art of War” can be applied to such wide areas as those explored in the play. However, the second act becomes much murkier as the complexities of real life muddy the waters of Sun Tzu’s advice. At first I thought the playwright had used all his best ideas in the first act and I felt that the play started to falter in the second act. I had the same feeling with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. On reflection though, I think that the difference between the two acts is a reflection of the difference between the attractiveness of an idea and the reality of its implementation in messy real life. The fog of war, so to speak.

“The Art of War” is a very timely investigation of how ideological driven action without a knowledge of history and the lessons learned in the past can lead to disaster. There definitely is a subtext of rationalism versus empiricism.

The direction of Annabel Arden is very good and I was constantly pleased to see how she moved the actors around the stage; one minute they were moving like a school of fish and then the next they were forming patterns and shapes. There was also very creative use of props,  fluid segues and the humour was well timed.

For me the most compelling idea in the play was that of how philosophies can be interpreted in many different, self serving, and quite often contradictory ways. There are times when this paradox is addressed with what I thought was good effect as various characters use Sun Tzu’s tactics in seemingly opposite ways. The central question posed by the play is; can Sun Tzu’s Art of War be used in all aspects of life? Are Love and business the same as war? If you live in Sydney, I’d say it’s well worth the admission price to find out.

In memory of Mister Heng of Phnom Penh

In the preparation of this blog and writing for my all the dumb things series, I’ve been going through all my old negatives. Sometimes this is a painful process, not because it’s tedious (which it is) but because of all the memories that come flooding back. Particularly when I look at my Cambodian shots. I lived in Cambodia from 1st of September 1974 to 18th February 1975. In the almost six months that I lived in Phnom Penh I developed a friendship with an ethnic Chinese man named Mister Heng.

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I met Mr. Heng through his son (who I had also befriended) who worked as a driver at the Australian consulate. I had started learning Cantonese from Mr. Heng and over time he became somewhat of a mentor to me. I was this totally naïve, awkward, loud, and ignorant teenager from Australia and he was a very cultured and urbane father figure in the Confucianist sense. Why do I mention Confucianism in regard to Mr Heng? Because he embodied (to my mind at least) all the great aspects of that philosophy, in that he was humane, benevolent, erudite and he knew that he had a duty to uplift his juniors. Mr Heng was a true gentleman who always acted in a compassionate way. He was never quick to judgement or anger and he often reigned in my outbursts by delivering a succinct Chinese maxim.

I remember once complaining to Mr. Heng that a calligrapher, engraver was charging what I though was too much as the engraving was going to cost more than the item to be engraved. Mr Heng just said to me “what is worth more; the canvas or the painting on the canvas?”

I’m sure that if Mr. Heng had been alive hundreds of years ago in China he would’ve been a Mandarin. He was always so calmly sagacious. So as I look at his picture and think about what a decent man Mr. Heng had been to me, I can’t help but be saddened by what I imagine became of him and his family after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975.

Perfect Blueberry Pancakes

Makes about 10 of the most delicious side-dish sized pancakes

This is a modification of a Neil Perry recipe from his book “Good Food”. Neil Perry is one of Sydney’s gods of food and amongst many other things he owns and runs two of Sydney’s better restaurants, XO and Rockpool. I’ve tried several of Mr Perry’s recipes and they are superb.

The pancakes in this recipe are similar in taste and texture to the buttermilk pancakes that are in Neil Perry’s book. I found the original pancake recipe took too long to cook and the middle was still a little too moist for my taste, even when I spread around the dough during the pouring. In his cookbook Neil Perry says that his recipes are a starting point. So I started, and changed things a little.

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Ingredients
150g (5 ½ oz or 1 cup) fresh of frozen blueberries
150g (5 ½ oz or 1 cup) plain (all purpose) flour
2 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of cinnamon powder
2 eggs
500ml (2 cups) thick natural Greek style yoghurt
80g  (3oz) unsalted butter melted

Method
Sift all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. In another smaller bowl beat the eggs until they are frothy. Add the yoghurt and eggs to the dry ingredients and mix well. Then stir in the melted butter.

Pour out enough dough for a pancake into a heavy based frying pan over medium heat (I use an electric grill plate). Spread the dough around a little so the pancake isn’t too thick and place several blueberries on the cooking dough. Cook the pancake until the formed bubbles have broken and the top has started to look a bit dry. This is the time to turn the pancake over and cook for 2 more minutes.

Serve with maple syrup and butter.

How to nearly tear your foot off (part 2). Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part two in a two part chapter from my all the dumb things series. If you would like to read part 1 first, click here.

In the morning the railway staff came to work and in a very civilised way, completely without malice, woke us trespassers and suggested we move along. Although the roads west were closed due to flooding, the raised railways weren’t. Since there was no accommodation to be had in Charleville I bought a train ticket to Mount Isa (a mining town in the far west of Queensland). The rolling stock that was running in outback Queensland at the time was old and decrepit.

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 The carriages were known as “red rattlers” because of their colour and all the noise they made. It was very basic transport with only hard seating, no air conditioning, no sleepers or dining car. Although it had been raining for days, the weather was very hot and humid. The state of the tracks was so poor that we just crawled along barely faster in places than what a person could run. The landscape out in that part of the country is very flat with straw-coloured grass dappled with the odd shrub here and there, for as far at the eye can see in every direction. The big empty skies are inhabited with the occasional wedge tailed eagles wheeling around high up in the thermals. 

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 It was all so mind numbingly boring. The people I met on the train didn’t have much of interest to say. They were uncomplicated people mainly traveling to work on farms or in mines and let’s face it I stank. I did meet one character though; he was a 14-year-old school drop out who was on his way to a cattle station (ranch) to work as a jackaroo (cowboy). When I told him that I thought he was too young to drop out of school, he said that he wanted to be a jackaroo and that his parents didn’t mind. Then I asked him if he was worried about going through life with so little education (I was little better, but at the time I was too stupid to realise it). He retorted, “if think you’re so smart, spell Ornithorhynchus”. To which I admitted that I couldn’t and then he proceeded to spell it. He then then said, “there ya go, I’m smarter that you!”  He did have a point, but I wasn’t to be deterred so I asked him what Ornithorhynchus meant. He said he didn’t know but he could spell it and I couldn’t, so that was that! I later looked up the word Ornithorhynchus in a dictionary to find that it is half the Latin name for platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

The train had been crawling along for hours and all of a sudden there was a big jolt and crunching sound. One of the carriages had derailed a bogey. The bogey had just come off the rails but the carriage hadn’t toppled over, it’s a good thing that we weren’t traveling at a higher speed. So we sat in the heat for about five hours until another maintenance train with a crane turned up on a parallel track. Many people had gotten off the train and were standing around outside either watching or offering to help. They got the carriage back on the track by hooking the nearest under side of the derailed carriage with the crane and lifting it a little as the locomotive with derailed carriage pulled forward so the bogey would drop into place. It was easy to see that the railway staff were old hands at remounting derailed trains. It was an amazing thing to watch. In all, I’d say the derailment took about ten hours to sort out before we could continue and by then it was nighttime.

I spent another uncomfortable night trying to sleep in my seat with the addition of being hungry, thirsty and racidly filthy. After the derailment the train traveled even slower than before. People were jumping off the train then walking beside it for while and then climbing back on again out of shear boredom. It was so hot, that in the hope of catching a breeze, I sat myself down in one of the exit doors with my feet dangling out of the side of the train. I passed the time looking across at the horizon, up at the sky and occasionally extending my arm to brush my hand through the long grass that sometimes grew by the side of the tracks. This went on for hour after hypnotizing hour until; all of a sudden I felt that someone had belted a home run on my foot with a baseball bat. My attention was immediately snapped downward to my assaulted foot to be traumatized by what I could see. Gazing at the horizon had not been a very effective survival strategy as I’d neglected to notice the low “steel plate girder” bridge we were crossing. It was one of those bridges that is based on the “I beam” but it has extra vertical stiffeners reinforcing the sides.

steel plate girder bridge
This is not the actual train I was on but this picture illustrates
what a “steel plate girder” bridge looks like.  

 The top of the “I beam” was level with the floor of the carriage I was sitting on and the gap between it and the train had an average of about 18cm (about 7”). I say average because the gap fluctuated due to the combination of casual engineering and carriage movement. I was convinced that my leg was going to be snipped off like a piece of play dough. There wasn’t enough of a gap to pull my leg free and as we passed the vertical stiffeners, my foot was hit for home run after home run. During my agonizing pummeling of thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, I watched in sickening horror as the gap between the train and bridge opened and nearly closed numerous times, threatening to separate me from my beloved and very useful legs, again and again. By the time the train passed over the bridge I’d been so thoroughly hammered by the gauntlet of steel stiffeners that I was sure that all that was left of my feet would be bloodied stumps. I had automatically pulled my legs up into the carriage as soon as I was free of the bridge and much to my relief my feet were still there.

It was a good thing that I’d been wearing thick lace up ankle high boots at the time. I was sure all the bones were broken in the foot that was on the leading edge of the battering. I undid my laces as fast as I could and had a look at my feet.  They were heavily bruised but there weren’t any broken bones and with the panic out of the way I had pause to notice the excruciating pain I was in. I was in so much pain that it was the first time in days that I didn’t notice how bad I smelled. I quickly put my boots back on and laced them up tight to reduce the swelling and waited for a few hours for the pain to diminish enough for me to hobble back to my seat again.

I won’t be sticking any part of my body out of a train again, that’s for sure.

Epilogue. Mt Isa had a Laundromat and proper motels with clean water!

Cycling at Olympic Park. Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia

I went cycling with my friend Paul and his trusty birdy at Olympic park in Homebush last Thursday. 

 The beautiful thing about cycling at Homebush is that there are not only 35kms (just under 22 miles) of very nice cycle paths and restaurants; there is the spectacle of the stadium itself.

 Due to an advertising deal Stadium Australia has acquired the name “Telstra Stadium”.

 Most people I know here in Sydney just call it the Olympic Stadium.

During the Olympics two local comedians (Roy and HG) ran an hilarious TV show called “The Dream” at the end of the day, commenting on the day’s events. Roy and HG with the help of cartoonist Paul Newell had come up with an alternative to the “official Olympic Games mascots”, called “Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat”.

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 Fatso was much more popular with most Sydney-siders than the bland official mascots and there is a likeness of him on top of a pole near the stadium.

La Cuesta Encantada (Hearst Castle) San Simeon, California, USA

La Cuesta Encantada, also nick-named “Hearst Castle” is an easy target of scorn. It’s a monument to the bowerbird tastes of the latter day carpetbagger, William Randolph Hearst. A cashed-up Hearst swept through a devastated cash strapped Europe after both world wars buying up decorative arts that caught his eye without much of a coherent plan of what to do with it all when he got back home. His only aim seemed to be to decorate his dream house, which was designed and being built (it was never finished) by the very capable Julia Morgan. Most of La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) is of the “Mediterranean Revival” style with various other styles thrown in for good luck.

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 It’s a sort of rich man’s pastiche of Disneyland meets Hollywood. The main building looks like a cross between a Mediterranean church and a Tyrolean Berghaus. The plethora of religious decoration on display almost leads one to think that Hearst was a devout man of Catholic faith. Apparently the only Catholic thing about Hearst was his taste. All the religious subject of the “art” was basically a manifestation of the fact that the church was the major arts patron in Europe for the last thousand years. All the great medieval and renaissance European artists did most of their work for the church, so as a consequence; most well made decoration of that time was religious in nature.

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Part of me (the part that ignores the way Hearst behaved politically) can sympathize with Hearst and how he led his life. Why not build a dream house and decorate it to your own taste? Why not have huge dinners every night with the most interesting people of your age? What could be better than a good food and good company in salubrious surroundings?

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 Hearst paid well and provided a lot of employment to the area around San Simeon. If I had the kind of money that Hearst did, I’d probably live in a similar way with the exception that I’d give a major chunk of the money away to charities like the Malambo Women’s Club and the Fred Hollows Foundation. I’d also commission new works by living artists rather that collect art from dead artists. It’s better in my mind to feed a living artist than a living art dealer.

If you are going to the west coast of the US, I recommend going to Hearst Castle just to see his swimming pools!

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The Roman pool was used in the 1960 Kubrik movie Spartacus and it is the setting of the famous deleted “eating oysters” and “eating snails” scene which was used by Lawrence Olivier’s character Crassus as code for, sexual preference is a matter of taste rather than morality. It’s an amazing scene for it’s day and all the more bizzare for the fact that Tony Curtis delivers his lines with a Bronx accent.

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The indoor pool under the main building is an Art Deco tour de force in gold and lapis lazuli cloured tiles.

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How to nearly tear your foot off. Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part one in a two part chapter in my all the dumb things series.

In late January 1974, when I was 17 years old, I decided to go travelling in Asia. From Sydney I hitch hiked north hoping to get rides all the way to Darwin. Unfortunately there had been an exceptionally wet summer up north and Cyclone Wanda had pushed the wet season rains further south than normal, causing floods in Brisbane and much of outback Queensland. I arrived in Brisbane about two days after the floods. There was an eerie quietness to the city as I passed through and high water marks could be seen as high as 3 or 4m (9 or 12ft) on many buildings downtown and the Brisbane River banks were littered with the flotsam of  destroyed houses and anything else that got swept away by the flood. There were bundles of grass draped over the power lines that had been left by the receding flood waters. The skies were still cloudy and it looked like it would rain at any time so I didn’t linger in Brisbane and hitched out west to Dalby.

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I got to just past Dalby by nightfall and I was dropped off in the middle of night by the highway. I kept on hitching into the night and then it started to rain. Hitching at night while it is raining is not a winning combination. It’s hard enough to get someone to stop when it’s pitch black, let alone allow you to get into their vehicle when you are dripping wet. Back in those days it never occurred to me to carry a small tent, so I spent the night trudging along with my backpack, while wearing a flimsy plastic poncho. After many hours, I was picked up by a truck driver in the wee hours of the morning. The truck was a Mac pulling an empty three level cattle trailer. Macs in those days didn’t have very big cabs so the driver said I had to put my pack in the cattle trailer. In the pouring rain we tied the pack up, out of all the sloppy cow dung on the floor, by its straps to the top of the second level.  Cold and drenched I was happy to have the ride but I was exhausted because I hadn’t slept properly for three days. Truck driver was none to happy with me every time I drifted off to sleep and he kept on waking me up by slapping me on the nearest arm. “I picked you up to keep me awake” he’d say. By daylight, we had reached the truck driver’s turn off and  I was dropped off with my soaking wet, cow manure impregnated backpack in the middle of nowhere. The pack reeked of dung and urine and everything in the pack was a soggy fetid mess. Oh well, at least it had stopped raining.

When I hitch hike I usually walk backwards, wearing my pack,  facing the oncoming traffic. The only relatively clean clothes I now had were the ones I was wearing and they quickly soaked up the stench from my pack. Usually when people pick you up they open up the door and with a smile ask you where you’re going, you answer and then they open the boot (trunk) of their car to load the back pack and then, in you hop into the front with the driver.  In the Outback most people drive pick up trucks of one kind or another so they just tell you to toss the pack in the back and then you get into the cab with them. Once you get into the vehicle, greetings and handshakes are exchanged and conversation begins. In my experience, hitch hiking has been a great way to meet the generous and gregarious members of society. It’s a very sociable way to travel. That is usually how things go, but when one is covered in cow manure things aren’t so friendly.

The outback is peopled by farmers and as such you’d think that they’d have some kind of inured tolerance to the excremental odours of their bovines. Nah!  “Cow-Cockies” (what we affectionately call our cattle farmers here in Australia) don’t like the smell of cattle crap any more than city people. My host’s smiles for the next two days would quickly convert to a shocked rictus as they got a whiff of me. To their credit, no-one kicked me out of their vehicles, but they did wind down the windows and one occasion I was put in the back with the scary pig-dogs. “What’s a pig dog?” I hear you ask. Imagine the dogs one would get if you crossed a mastiff with a bull terrier that are used to drag down wounded wild pigs that have huge tusks. Big headed, broad chested, muscular bodied and covered in scars. Not the sort of dogs you would want to pat or let near children.

Most towns in the outback back then were just crossroads that had a pub on three of the corners and a general store on the other. The pubs were places you could go for a cold beer or a fight. The accommodation offered at these establishments was Spartan to say the least. They weren’t really hotel rooms as most people would expect, but rather places to pass out when you were too drunk to fight or drive. By the time I got to Charleville I’d hadn’t slept properly for five days and I stank like an abattoir. I was really looking forward to washing my clothes and having a shower.

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 Charleville didn’t have a laundromat and the pub I stayed at, only had bore water in the shared bathroom.  Usually bore water can smell a little and be a bit brown but the water on offer at the pub glooped out of the tap as a thick tar like sludge that smelled of rotten eggs. No cleaning up for me. Not much rest either as my room didn’t have a handle or lock and few times in the evening drunks came in and tried to go to sleep. It was a nightmare.

The next morning after a greasy tepid breakfast that could only be described as a crime against nature, I continued hitching in the rain to Longreach. By the time I got to Longreach the rain was pouring down and it was getting dark. The road out of town had been closed due to the floods and all the truck drivers and travellers who had arrived before me had booked out all the accommodation in town. At first I was at a loss as to where I was going to stay until one of the pub patrons told me to go and sleep on the platform at the railway station. Soaked and putrid I walked through the red mud to the train station. Surprisingly the train station platform wasn’t locked up and all the next day’s freight was piled into a mountain on the platform. The two benches on the platform were already occupied by snoring drunks.  In the middle of the mountain of freight, like a dream come true, was a stack of about ten plastic covered mattresses. I didn’t even think twice and I climbed to the top of the mattresses and had the best sleep that I’d had for days.

Part 2 

On a technical note the pictures above were taken on Agfachrome (should’ve been named Agfacrap) which is a substative film (unlike Kodachrome which is non-substantive). Substantive films are much more prone to colour shift due to heat damage and the dyes fade much faster over time than the dyes in non-substantive films. I’ve tried to fix up the images in PhotoShop but the colours are a little too far gone.

Senso-ji (Asakusa Kannon). Asakusa,Tokyo, Japan

Located in Asakusa is the beautiful Senso-ji, founded in 628, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Also known as the Asakusa Kannon, the temple complex is dedicated to the Buddhist godess of mercy. To get to the temple you can catch the subway to Asakusa and then head to the centuries old shopping street of Nakamise-dori.

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Nakamise-dori is a colourful gauntlet of charming little traditional Japanese gift shops that one passes through to get into the temple grounds.

Thunder gate

Pagoda