Thursday, 30 May 2013

Delhi: Walking the Lost Raj

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Looking up at Delhi's India Gate in February 2011, I had Percy Shelley’s 1818 poem in mind.

In this case, however, the vanished power mocked by its own monumental remains was the British Empire.

This monumental gate was erected in 1931 as the keystone of New Delhi. A vast new capital for Britain's Indian Empire, it was landscaped over a vast area south of the old city centre in a series of razor-straight roads meeting at circular intersections in leafy neighbourhoods.

Just 16 years later, The Raj was at an end, something that the creators of New Delhi could never have foreseen.

Of course, the parallels with Shelley’s poem are inexact. We know precisely what the India Gate was intended to be: both a war memorial for the Indian dead of World War I and an enduring symbol of British power.

And the Republic of India, which found itself with a sparkling new capital at its centre (quite a going-away gift) has maintained New Delhi’s ceremonial core.

From the India Gate, housed at the centre of a vast circular park, a grand ceremonial avenue, the Rajpath, stretches west. Along its length is placed the National Museum, the soaring imperial Secretariat Buildings, and at the end the imposing President’s Residence (once the Viceroy’s humble abode).

Unusually for a tourist, at least according to every tuk-tuk driver I passed that day, I walked the entire route from my accommodation at the Taj Mahal Hotel to Connaught Place, the commercial hub of New Delhi.

Along the final approach to Connaught Place (whose two concentric circles are actually officially named Rajiv Chowk and Indira Chowk), there were many many people who wanted to sell me things.

But I good-naturedly strolled on, declining all offers, even passing a demonstration about education issues at one stage, until I arrived at the heart of New Delhi. Bustling, noisy, vibrant – all the usual India-related clich├ęs applied.

To escape the rush and summon up a finale to my reflection on the lost Raj, I retreated to the 1911 Bar within the art deco Imperial Hotel. This opulent fever-dream of Empire was completed, ironically, just over a decade before India gained its independence.

Though grand, the bar (named for the year New Delhi was designated as India’s new capital) was also a little playful. It was dominated by a vast horseshoe-shaped timber bar topped with marble, fronted by comfortable leather-backed chairs.

Above was a remarkable glass canopy bearing colourful designs reminiscent of the art nouveau era. Among the leather sofas along the walls were sepia photographs of maharajas and nawabs. On the wall beyond was a long painting of an idealised scene of Indian life along a riverbank.

The bar's specialty cocktail sounded a little dangerous: Chak de Phatte, containing vodka, rum, tequila, gin, whiskey, curacao and (incongruously) Sprite.

One senses that this place was as much a fantasy in the 1930s as it is now. As I sipped my risky drink, I wondered if Ozymandias would have approved of such a flighty evocation of a golden age that, perhaps, never existed?

Perhaps he would, as long as his face was on the label.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled to New Delhi courtesy of Thai Airways and received discounted accommodation at the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Imperial Hotel.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Melbourne: Coffee & Free Wifi

It has long been noted that Australia has minimal free wifi Internet access in public places, particularly cafes and bars.

I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps, back at the dawn of wifi, the companies installing it here were charging outrageous sums to provide it in cafes, so it never took off.

Nowadays, of course, almost everyone is equipped with Internet-enabled smartphones or other online devices, so whatever pressure there was on cafes to provide wifi has eased.

As a result, I suspect we'll never see the prevalence of free wifi in Australia that you encounter in many other countries.

In some ways that's a blessing. Rather than being silent venues in which everyone is bent over a phone or laptop while eking out a caffe latte, cafes here tend to be lively places with a lot of conversation and bustle.

The best thing that travellers can do upon arrival in Oz, therefore, is to visit a local telco's shopfront and pick up an Australian SIM card or laptop data key with a generous data download allowance.

However, though it's not prevalent, free wifi does exist in Australia - you just have to know where to look.

Here's a random sample of free wifi locations I know of in the Melbourne city centre, specifically focusing on pleasant places at which you can sit down, order good food and drink, and go online in comfort (so not McDonald's).

These are all fairly close to where I live, so it's an unscientific survey, but here we go:

Thousand Pound Bend, 361 Little Lonsdale Street. A relaxed retro barn of a place, with inexpensive food and drink and an attached art gallery. It also screens cult movies occasionally. Open weekdays from 8am to late, weekends from 10am to late.

La La Land, 125 Hardware Street. The least likely place you'd expect to find free wifi, but the most comfortable. An sprawling upstairs bar with comfy sofas and a mellow atmosphere. Open 5pm-late Monday-Thursday, 4pm-late Friday, 7pm-late Saturday and Sunday. 

Little Mule, 19 Somerset Place. Friendly little alley cafe which doubles as a bicycle shop (of course), open 7:30am-3pm Monday-Friday and 9:30am-3pm Saturday. To be honest, I'm not sure whether their wifi is available for customer use - they just kindly offered it to me one day when I was hanging out their doorway trying to get a decent signal on my phone. So if you order breakfast and ask politely, they may be able to help.

Moat, 176 Little Lonsdale Street. Beneath the Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria, this cafe-bar picks up the free wifi provided by the library, though it can be a bit patchy in some corners. This is the classiest place on my list, which means it's also the most expensive; it serves tasty sharing plates and has a good wine list. Open 8am-late Monday-Friday, 3pm-late Saturday.

2Pocket, 277 Little Lonsdale Street. This is the most feelgood, ethical place at which to log in; the coffee doubles as a Fairtrade shop. The wifi password isn't handed out willy-nilly however, so ask politely if you'd like access. And buy something more than a single coffee (I recommend the Fairtrade Madagascar-made chocolate bars). Open 7.30am-5pm weekdays, 9.30am-4.30pm Saturday, 10am-2.30pm Sunday.

Workshop, 413 Elizabeth Street. This upstairs bar is a cool informal space which doubles as an art gallery featuring new artists' works; Narrelle and I surprised ourselves by buying a piece of art from here once, after a beer or two. It's open till late but the wifi is only switched on during daylight hours, generally from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday, and 1-4pm on weekends.

Honourable mentions: These options are not as comfy nor as atmospheric as the above, and their access is likely to be slow and congested, but you can also access free wifi within these public spaces:
  • Melbourne Central shopping mall, 211 La Trobe Street (I recommend ordering a coffee at Plantation on Level 2, then sitting in their big comfy chairs);
  • State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street.
  • Federation Square, corner Swanston and Flinders Streets;
  • Flinders Street Station, corner Swanston and Flinders Streets;
  • The Officeworks stationery store at 107 Elizabeth Street (and presumably the company's other city branches);
  • For Victorians, there's also the City Library, 253 Flinders Lane (but you can only access the wifi after you've joined the library, which only residents of Victoria can do).
As alluded to earlier, there's also free wifi at most city centre branches of McDonald's if you're desperate, but I wouldn't wish its dire food or coffee on anyone.

OK folks - clearly this is an incomplete sample. Please use the comments field below to add any more free wifi outlets you know of in Melbourne, preferably with location details and opening hours. Let's share!

Friday, 17 May 2013

I Am a Bond Villain (Nyah-ha-ha)

Yesterday I published my latest book for Kindle, with the unlikely title of I Am a Bond Villain: A Travel Writer's Strange Affair With Britain & Ireland.

It's a collection of my articles about the UK and Eire, which have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites over the past decade.

It's also a director's cut of sorts, as many of the chapters contain additional material which weren't part of the original published pieces.

As I was putting the book together, I noticed how often I'd written travel articles about British and Irish culture, particularly concerning British fictional characters.

With that in mind, I'd like to share the Foreword, to give you some of the book's flavour and to outline my love for this part of the world...

---
Foreword

I’d travelled to Britain many times in my mind before I actually set foot there.

My childhood and early adult years were awash with fiction emanating from the United Kingdom.

As a young boy I marvelled at monsters invading the London streets and its Underground in black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who. As I got older, the first novels I read were the haunting science fiction stories of John Wyndham, including The Day of the Triffids.

I also enjoyed the Poirot mysteries of Agatha Christie, which often took me into the English countryside with its trademark stately homes and quaint villages (both concealing sinister secrets).

In a neat reversal in the 1980s, the excellent Sherlock Holmes television series starring Jeremy Brett led me to devour the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, still excellent after all these years.

Similarly, the 1990s Jeeves & Wooster TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie introduced me to the marvellous (and plentiful) works of PG Wodehouse, which I’m still working my way through.

And later that decade I played Duncan in a production of Macbeth at the University of Western Australia, finally taking part in my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

Given this immersion in imagination, it seems only fitting that the first four chapters of this book focus on fictional characters.

When I first arrived in London in 1990, I was delighted to discover that the British capital was even more complex and layered than had been suggested by these creative folk; as was the land beyond.

Armed with a thick UK railway timetable and a Britrail pass, Narrelle Harris and I proceeded to explore this familiar/unfamiliar country, passing through the cities, towns and countryside of England, Wales and Scotland.

Much later, I was lucky enough to add Ireland – both north and south – to this tally. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic, I was glad to find connections to my own life and experiences, and to make the acquaintance of the warm, complex people of that island.

This book is a collection of my published travel articles about the UK and Ireland, which first appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. It’s not intended to be a guidebook or travel memoir, rather a series of glimpses into aspects of these two nations.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them, and that they provide inspiration for your next visit to Britain or Ireland.

Cheers!

Tim Richards
Melbourne, 2013

---
Here's the link again: I Am a Bond Villain: A Travel Writer's Strange Affair With Britain & Ireland.

If you buy the book, I hope you enjoy it. If so, please take a moment to review it on the Amazon website or via the Kindle link. Thanks!

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Unpublished 14: Swift vs Partridge

I recently wrote the following item as part of an article about the literary heritage of Dublin, Ireland. 

However, the editor requested a different approach and so the amusing tale of Jonathan Swift's astrological revenge ended up on the cutting room floor. Until now...

Oscar Wilde is the most famous of Dublin’s roll-call of great writers, and a man who could coin a devastating put-down at a moment’s notice.

When a poet complained that his latest book was being ignored in a “conspiracy of silence” and asked Wilde what to do, the rapid reply was “Join it.”

Wilde, however, would be no match in the cunning plan department for his stellar predecessor Jonathan Swift, masterful satirist and the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Swift, who would later become Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, objected in 1708 to slighting remarks about the Church written by English shoemaker-turned-astrologer John Partridge.

Swift’s revenge was both subtle and spectacular. Drawing on Partridge’s history of inaccurately forecasting famous individuals’ deaths in annual almanacs, he predicted under a false name that Partridge would die on 29 March that year.

The efficient writer then sealed the hoax by issuing a letter under another pseudonym on the fatal date, announcing the astrologer’s death. Swift thoughtfully accompanied this declaration with a eulogy, which began “Here five foot deep lies on his back; A cobbler, starmonger, and quack.”

Partridge, though very much alive, never fully recovered from the inconvenience caused by the public’s enduring belief that he’d passed on.

As Swift and Wilde demonstrate, there’s nothing dull about the writers of Dublin. Over the centuries a cavalcade of literary stars has inhabited the institutions, streets, pubs and cafes of the city, creating great books, plays and poems.

Beyond Swift and Wilde, Dublin’s remarkable back catalogue of literary heroes includes James Joyce, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw. And there’s no forgetting Bram Stoker, whose popularisation of the vampire myth has undergone a great resurgence in the 21st century.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise to discover that the Irish capital is a UNESCO City of Literature.

A great place to delve into the fascinating worlds summoned up by wordsmiths, Dublin offers many ways of diving into literature, including pubs with storytellers, grand libraries, ancient manuscripts, and tours exploring this city of words.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.
.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Democracy: MADE in Ballarat

Ballarat has always been an unusual Australian regional city, in that its attractions are not largely based on its natural environment.

In fact the city's major drawcards are all historical, based on the central role the city played in the mid-19th century Victorian goldrush, one of the most glittering ever seen.

From the early 1850s Ballarat was a tumultuous hub of activity, with miners from around the world trying their luck on the diggings and being overseen by a stretched and sometimes corrupt police force.

From this period derives Sovereign Hill, an excellent historical village on the site of an original gold mine.

Ballarat's other great attraction connected with that era, the Eureka Centre, closed a few years ago for redevelopment.

Its building sat on the site of the Eureka Stockade, a makeshift fortification which in 1854 became a battleground between soldiers, and miners who had vowed to defy the authorities. As tension mounted, they pushed for representation in Parliament and the ending of the hated gold mining licence.

The short but bloody battle was lost by the miners, but they went on to win the war. With no jury willing to convict the insurrection's arrested members, the government was forced to back down.

Within a short space of time the rebels had secured sweeping democratic reforms in a new constitution. Their bloodied leader, Peter Lalor, went on to become a Member of Parliament and served for many years.

It's a great story and a crucial part of Australia's democratic evolution, hence the creation of a brand new museum which opened today. It's the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka, MADE for short.

Frankly, I was impressed. I entered just after its doors were open for the first time to encounter the above piece of art - the "Democracy Machine" which links the museum's logo to words such as PROTEST and REBEL.

That in itself was a good sign. There's long been a view from conservative quarters that the Eureka Stockade rebellion was something to be embarrassed about and hushed up, while more radical groups tried to claim the event for themselves. This ambivalence led to some awkward fence-sitting - I seem to remember a lot of "make up your own mind" commentary in the old Eureka Centre.

Not so here, it seemed - demonstration, protest and dissent were gaining recognition as legitimate tools in a democratic society (tools that the powers-that-be have tried hard to confiscate in recent years).

The main exhibition was wrapped in layers within a circular central hall. The inner tables, bearing horizontal touch screens, were devoted to the Eureka Stockade rebellion, along with progressive changes in Australia through the 20th century (women gaining the right to vote in 1902, for example, decades ahead of their sisters in the UK and USA).

Around the outside of the hall above head height was a backlit montage of pivotal events in the evolution of democracy across the world, up to and including the Arab Spring.

Around the walls below that were various sections devoted to aspects of protest, influence and change. This Incendiary Library was a screen with a rotating selection of books which had either wielded great influence or had been banned at some point. No idea, however, why Huckleberry Finn had been banned for the reasons noted here:

A section devoted to the power of words played audio sections of famous speeches, with the words animated to demonstrate their power as they tumbled onto the screen in unison with the sound:

This next marvellous section examined the power of numbers. It included an alcove in which music and images could only be unleashed by the audience standing together in front of screens depicting mass protest scenes from around the world:

Finally, after all the exhibits had been pored over and interacted with, I entered the special dimly lit chamber devoted to the display of the Eureka Flag. This was the original banner stitched for the miners' revolt which had flown above the stockade on this site in 1854, miraculously retained by the family of the trooper who cut it down after the battle:

Now here it was, back on the patch of ground where it had served as an inspiration to rebels almost 160 years ago. A piece of history, and a thing of beauty.

The free opening celebrations continue at MADE, Eureka Street, Ballarat on Sunday 5 May 2013. From Monday 6 May the museum will open daily from 10am-5pm. Full details at the MADE website.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by Ballarat Regional Tourism.