Thursday, 25 April 2013

Bendigo Up Close

Last week while I was staying at Woodend, I hopped on a train for a day trip to Bendigo.

I've always enjoyed this sort of outing, a short rail trip from a place where you're already a visitor.

With no luggage, no bed and no bookings at your destination, you feel even more anonymous than usual as a traveller. Literally, you're just passing through.

I remember a similar jaunt when I was staying in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK back in 2001. Feeling like a break from the wall-to-wall Shakespeareana, I caught a train to nearby Warwick.

Warwick's a small British city with a famous castle, but instead of visiting that I just wandered around town, looking at the streetscapes and having lunch outside a cafe in the sunshine.

In the late afternoon I found myself at an atmospheric old pub writing postcards, before catching the train back to Stratford. Bliss.

So. Bendigo on a quiet autumn Wednesday. For those who don't know, this regional city two hours north of Melbourne was a major beneficiary of the 19th century gold rush. That prosperity is still evident on its inner-city streets, lined with the bold and elegant facades of public and commercial buildings of the era.

I'd been to Bendigo before, however, and this time I was focused on the detail. As I walked along, I looked for the quaint, the odd, the quirky. Here's what I found:

1. Count like an Egyptian. On quiet Rowan Street, behind the old Rifle Brigade pub, I spotted this extravagant display of Egyptomania above the entrance of an accountancy firm. Why was it there? Ra knows.

2. Dragon rising. I found this striking 2007 sculpture, Chase the Dragon, in front of Dudley House, an office building from 1859:

3. Fire door. A little further along View Street was this excellent door; merely a functional element of the former Fire Station, but still crafted with pride:

4. Capital capital. This impressive pillar was one of several along the grand entrance of The Capital, now the city's performing arts centre but originally the 1873 Masonic Hall:

5. Smart art. Opposite these classic facades was something very modern - the exterior of La Trobe University's Visual Arts Centre. Apparently the large artworks on the exterior are changed each year:

6. Tie a red ribbon. I almost missed this intriguing curio as I continued down View Street. A dilapidated sign proclaimed the building the Red Ribbon Rebellion Museum, though it was closed as I passed.

Looking up the rebellion later, I was intrigued to discover it was a huge 1853 protest campaign against the miner's licence, hatred of which led to the revolt at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat a year later (You can read more about the Red Ribbon Rebellion at this link).

7. What's your sign? There's something fascinating and romantic about faded old signs, pointing the way to shops or offices which are no longer there. Here's one I spotted off View Street:

8. Have some fruit instead. Temperance was a big movement around the turn of the 20th century; hence this impressive facade of the Temperance Hall from 1895. No doubt the cornucopia fitted well with the message of healthy living through abstinence from the demon drink:

9. Ticket to ride. Finally, I crossed Bendigo's broad Pall Mall (yes!) just in time to see the hourly tourist tram pull in. This is a remnant of the city's former tramway system, closed in the 1970s except for this single line.

If you're wondering about the unusual destination sign, the tram runs from the Central Deborah Gold Mine to the Bendigo Joss House Temple, which served Chinese prospectors from the 1860s.

I think you'll agree that the old tram is a small masterpiece in itself. Hopefully it'll serve as a nucleus for a renewed tramway network in Bendigo at some future date. Trams are cool.

(And you can learn more about the Bendigo tram and other regional trams in my Australia by Rail app!)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Next Train on Platform 2... is Not for You

I've never felt more free than early Tuesday morning, as I was sitting inside the dimly-lit railway station at Woodend, in country Victoria.

I've been spending five days away from work in the town, deliberately avoiding the Internet. I've completely shunned social media so far (strangely easy to do), and have only occasionally looked at my email to forestall any catastrophes in the making.

The apartment I've hired, Bella Loft, is a pleasant modern space, purpose-built behind the main street shops. It's just my cup of tea - contemporary furnishings, lots of natural light, and none of the finicky cottagey decor that so often infests weekend-away places.

Narrelle stayed overnight on Monday, usually one of her writing days, but had to return to the metropolis for her "day job" as an editor on Tuesday morning. I saw her onto the 6.55am train to Melbourne, which was near-full of commuters, then bought a coffee from the cart which is parked near the city-bound platform in the mornings.

Crossing the old wooden footbridge which connects the two platforms, I paused to watch the mysterious 7.02 pull in. For some reason this service was sidelined on the printed timetable, listed after all the other peak-period trains, and it took longer than the others to reach the city.

I could see from the bridge that rather than being the usual one-piece sleek commuter train, this was a long-distance locomotive pulling just three carriages. As it arrived only minutes after the swifter 6.55, hardly anyone was aboard.

I thought, "That's the train I'd commute on if I lived here"; more spacious seats, no crowding, and more travel time in which to read.

Then I crossed to the main station building, to hang about in its heated interior until the Village Larder cafe opened at 8am and I could feast upon its excellent shakshouka (you can't half tell that Woodend is a gentrified commuter town from this cafe's menu).

While I was sitting on a row of plastic chairs in one corner, reading Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania, a queue was forming at the ticket office. By the time I looked up, it had stretched past me to the back wall. These were office workers aiming to reach their city offices via the 7.21.

I watched them for a moment, noting the suits and other neat, office-friendly attire, and the air of slight tension that came with being in a queue for tickets for a train that would be with us shortly.

Soon they were gone, whisked away to their 9 to 5 routines. I rested my head against the wall behind me, and remembered I had no plans at all that day.

After a long leisurely cafe breakfast, I intended to buy a few groceries, then spend the remainder of the day in bed or on the sofa, reminding myself what it was to read a book or watch a film without the constant nagging interruptions of Twitter and its cousins.

The relief that comes from the realisation of unstructured time was profound. Such an unscheduled stretch was rare for anyone, even rarer for people who worked for themselves and often found themselves answering work emails out of office hours.

There's been a lot written about the freedom that travel brings; but to truly feel that freedom I think you need to visit a place where you can sit drinking coffee while watching people all around you dash off to work.

Then, once the rush is over, contemplate your ideal day for a moment, rise, and pursue it. The contrast will make it all the sweeter.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Laughs Ahoy: Melbourne Comedy Festival Log (Part 3)

I've been observed by a comedian on the way into a Comedy Festival show before, but never actually sketched. That's what happens, however, at First Dog on the Moon - Cartoobs and Other Typos.

Standing confidently in a suit behind a lectern, the Walkley Award-winning Crikey cartoonist known as First Dog on the Moon is drawing members of the audience as they settle into the subterranean venue at the Victoria Hotel.

There's an amused, anticipatory buzz as we watch him work, and try to pick ourselves from the cartoonish characters emerging on the screen at the front of the venue (And if you can spot which character is me in the above copy the artist handed out at the end, feel free to mention it in the comments below).

What follows is a series of set pieces, each basically a short talk illustrated by amusing visuals which include cartoons and simple animations.

First Dog's topics of choice include feminism, science, stupidity and democracy. He's an interesting speaker, and it's hard to guess where he's heading on a given topic - you have to be paying attention to end up at the destination alongside him.

The highlights of the show are the cartoons, with figures based on Australian native animals. Seen blown up on the screen, you realise how simple the characters are, while at the same time being expressive and dynamic.

Along with the occasional projected photos of cute animals, they're somehow heartwarming - a fact which First Dog would possibly be dismayed by, as he's already told us that our emotions are getting in the way of democracy.

There's something very Aussie about this show: low-key, cheeky and laconic. And very endearing.

[Find details and buy tix for First Dog on the Moon - Cartoobs and Other Typos here]

Detective work

Up the hill at the Swiss Club, Sherlock Holmes is being channelled at Lawrence Leung's Part-Time Detective Agency.

I've reviewed Leung before (see here, for example, and here); and if there's a constant theme in all his geekily obsessive shows, it's "investigation" in its various forms.

This time he's trying to replicate the kind of acute deductive skills displayed by Holmes, who could divine key aspects of the people around him simply by observation.

This he manages onstage very impressively, by pulling two people out of the front row and running a series of trials in which he guesses which one is holding his car keys by the duo's reactions to simple questions.

Leung then spins off into tales of his deductive work as a child, and unveils a dastardly crime from those days which has never been solved.

Via lively narrative and a set of snappy video clips, he sweeps us along with him as he questions suspects and unravels the mystery. It's brilliant theatre, performed with energy and timing, and the conclusion leaves us all satisfied.

It's only on the way home down Little Collins Street that we start to question the veracity of what we've just seen. How much of that childhood mystery was true? Did it even happen at all?

It doesn't matter. We were asking the same questions after seeing his entertaining show about con-man tricks, Sucker, way back in 2001.. and even then the question marks were all part of the fun.

[Find details and buy tix for Lawrence Leung's Part-Time Detective Agency here]

Read the earlier entries in my Melbourne International Comedy Festival log by clicking here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Laughs Ahoy: Melbourne Comedy Festival Log (Part 2)

Sensory Lab, the cafe located on the Little Collins Street side of David Jones, is a godsend to the tired comedy reviewer.

Because it keeps department store hours rather than standard cafe hours, it's usually open to 7pm and thus perfectly placed to provide one last jolt of caffeine before the laughs begin.

So I'm standing outside Sensory Lab, sipping meditatively while admiring a big new piece of art which has appeared in nearby Union Lane (see above).

Down the rabbit hole

Then it's off to see Simon Munnery - Fylm Makker at the Victoria Hotel.

You need to be in the right mood for this surreal British comedian, who strings together stream-of-consciousness, non-sequiturs and odd pieces of deliberately crappy animation in order to provoke laughs.

Strangely, it works, even if the laughs are frequently of the bemused kind.

In this show Munnery is taking even more risks than usual, as he doesn't appear live on stage at all. Instead he's hidden behind a pillar near the bar, his face projected onto a screen onstage as if he's a leftover Doctor Who villain from the 1970s.

This setup allows him to play around with fades and other simple though amateurish special effects, highlighting the silliness of his delivery.

It's the type of show about which you struggle to remember any of the material (I'm struggling right now), yet know you thoroughly enjoyed. A fine mental palate cleanser.

[Find details and buy tix for Simon Munnery - Fylm Makker here]

History and dance

The following night, I'm off to Trades Hall for Dave Callan - The Psychology of Laughter.

The beardy comedian, often mistaken for Billy Connolly, has decided on a cerebral basis for this year's show: an examination of the 1913 book The Psychology of Laughter.

They did things differently back then, and their sense of humour decidedly varied from ours in many ways. Callan draws neatly on the discrepancies by projecting extracts from the book on an onstage screen and entertainingly dissecting them.

There are a few flaws with the show. For one thing the screen is difficult to see if you're seated on the left of the room.

Callan also seems surprisingly serious when discussing the shortcomings of our forebears' sense of humour at points when you expect a bit of mischief. It's as if the necessity of acknowledging their racism and sexism has made him a little over-cautious about condemning it rather than making fun of it.

He's always a dynamic figure on stage, however, in a warm rapport with the audience; and the more bookish segments are leavened by short intense dance sequences which fire up the energy of the show.

[Find details and buy tix for Dave Callan - The Psychology of Laughter here]

Trivial pursuit

Anyone who saw the surreal sketch show Problems on ABC TV last year has had a taste of the character Sam Simmons inhabits in Sam Simmons - Shitty Trivia.

The Hi-Fi, a dingy music venue below the city streets, seems the perfect stand-in for a suburban RSL club at which Simmons is the less than genial host, barking out a series of odd questions which have no logical answers.

Sometimes the replies are the punchline, sometimes the questions provoke laughs on their own. After ten minutes or so of this nonsensical fun, I wonder how this is going to sustain an hour, but Simmons then raises the stakes.

Punctuating the trivia are appearances by a talking meat tray, ludicrous costume changes, a variety of odd props pulled out of a wheelie bin, and a prolonged uncomfortable turn on stage by an audience member.

It's all funny stuff, but Simmons' real genius comes in the tone of the show. In the lines, accents and cadences he adopts, he's precisely caught the atmosphere of Australian suburbia, and his odd character is all the stronger for it.

The only problem is the amplification in the Hi-Fi, which is set too high and sometimes distorts Simmons' lines. But maybe that fits neatly with the dodgy sound system of an old RSL club anyway. It's a funny show, much recommended.

[Find details and buy tix for Sam Simmons - Shitty Trivia here]

And you can read Part 1 of my Comedy Festival log by clicking here; and Part 3 by clicking here.