Friday 30 September 2016

Sucks to be UU: Portland's Vacuum Cleaner Museum

I paid for my own airfare to the USA, and stayed in Portland as a guest of Railbookers and Travel Portland.

When I visited Portland last year, I was on the lookout for curious attractions. The west coast US city has a reputation for the eccentric, and it proved to be a reputation well deserved.

One of the odder sights I happened across was Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum:

No, not that Stark... though it would been an apt place for Iron Man to have got his start.

Located in a branch of the retailer Stark's Vacuums in the city's Eastside neighbourhood, it turned out to be more of a jumble of old equipment than a carefully curated collection.

Having said that, it was interesting to browse.

There were antiquated carpet sweepers, the unpowered predecessors of vacuum cleaners and something I remember encountering as a kid.

How they actually worked eludes me, as they just seemed to push dust around. But here they were:

There were also plenty of vacuum cleaners of diverse vintages on display:

As you can see there was very little organisation to the collection, though some items had a detailed explanatory tag such as this:

At the end of the exhibition was a selection of smaller devices. Of these, I was most intrigued by the Hoover Dustette in its box. Was this the world's first handheld vac?

(Yes, apparently. I looked it up later. It was released in 1930.)

Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum didn't detain me long, as I had more to do elsewhere in the city. My laundry, for a start. My next stop was the funky laundromat known as Spin Laundry Lounge.

I was having a thoroughly housework-themed Portland day.

Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum is located at 107 NE Grand Avenue, Portland; free entry during shopping hours. For more of my discoveries in Portland, see my article for Fairfax Traveller: Ten Attractions Keeping Portland Weird.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2016 (Part 2)

Last post I reviewed two great shows in this year's Melbourne Fringe Festival. Here are two more reviews...

1. Black is the Colour
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Fringe time is always an excellent opportunity to try something new - either as a performer or as an audience member. So Black is the Colour is immediately appealing, as a show performed entirely in Auslan (Australian Sign Language), with surtitles projected on a screen above the stage.

Anna Seymour is Catherine, a survivor of domestic abuse. Her friend, Irene (Hilary Fisher) is in turns worried for her friend and irritated that Catherine has contributed to her own situation. Their story is expressed in Auslan - its energy and physicality a key part of the storytelling.

At the same time, Daniel Keene's elegant, poetic text appears above them in tandem with the signed story. Curiously, the text often refers to sound: birdsong, the fall of a bloom to the earth, music from a stereo, and the sound of a beloved voice.

While the idea is fantastic and keeps the audience's attention, the staging presents challenges; particularly for audience members who rely on the surtitles to follow the story.

The text is a little too small for easy reading, and sometimes vanishes before it can all be read. This naturally pulls attention away from the physical performance taking place - so you either miss some of the text or some of the action.

Perhaps, however, this is a subtle way of demonstrating what it might be like for people who are excluded from some communications in an aural world.

Despite this occasionally fractured viewing experience, the poignant longing and loss of these women - for their past, their security and their friendship - leaves an impression.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Salty
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Three Singaporean-Malay ghosts walk into a bar... well, a Fringe theatre... and strangeness results.

In this set of interconnected tales Shannan Lim, an actor of Singaporean heritage, borrows three weird creatures from the mythology of the Malay Peninsula and grafts them onto the modern world.

There's a stillborn baby which becomes a macabre slave; a misogynist man whose crude attentions to women on an MRT train leads to him spewing oil; and a man fearful his white girlfriend is a succubus-like being known as a pontianak.

Though Lim is a likeable performer with plenty of stage presence, the results are a little uneven. The sequence with the demon baby is overlong and thus not as blackly funny as intended, though the other stories with their recognisable characters work better.

Aside from splicing ancient myths to contemporary humans, Lim and his co-writers achieve a clever circularity as each sequence shares elements with the next. It's an interesting blend of ancient lore and modern life.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

And that wraps up our coverage of this year's Melbourne Fringe Festival, which continues to 2 October 2016. Enjoy!

Friday 16 September 2016

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2016 (Part 1)

The Melbourne Fringe Festival is one of the city's liveliest cultural events, and this year sees its 35th instalment.

With shows across a wide array of disciplines, including theatre, cabaret, comedy and dance, it's three weeks of new, challenging and stimulating live performance. I always see at least one Fringe show each year which proves to be incredibly moving and memorable, and that's often a simple one-person act in a tiny room.

I'm writing reviews of a number of Fringe shows for The Age again this year, which you can find by clicking here. On top of that, I'll review some additional shows here over two posts.

Let's get started...

1. Girl in the Wood
Reviewed by Tim Richards

A young woman wanders alone in a mysterious wood, searching for her lost brother and encountering threatening characters as she goes. There's an echo of classic fairy tales here, perhaps Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel.

It's not all old-school however, for she's a modern woman with determination and a knife for self-defence. The monster is also more post-modern than a product of Hans Christian Andersen: a formless black blob that's been devouring people and animals, and is holding her brother hostage until she brings it three specific treasures.

In fulfilling this quest she tangles with a scary duo in possession of a diamond ring, and a party of Irishmen wearing strange animal masks; all this in the company of a cowboy whose lost dad was once the sheriff in these parts.

It's an engaging modern fairy tale, with innovative set and costume design.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Blank Tiles
Reviewed by Tim Richards

If one word could describe this one-man play about a former Scrabble champ who's slowly losing his mind, it'd be "bittersweet". And that would be a great word to play across a triple-word score, as Austin (deftly played by Dylan Cole) would no doubt tell you.

Austin is a nerdy guy wearing a vest with multiple pockets, and he deals with a diagnosis of encroaching dementia by recording his memories and storing treasured notes. One of these was from his wife Daisy, an expression of love written before a Scrabble championship, and he returns to it again and again; rarely realising he's already told us about it.

As his story haltingly progresses, we learn about Austin's life and how his grandmother introduced him to the word game. It seems particularly sad that words which so sustained him on the Scrabble board are now so hard to retrieve from his memories, and though we warm to him there's also a sadness as we witness his mind falter.

To one side of the stage is a large Scrabble board on an easel, bearing a set of letters which Austin shifts throughout the night to spell out phrases related to his tale. The precision of this trick - the same set of tiles always providing the needed sentence, without any leftovers - is in tragic contrast with his failing grasp on the mental acuity which once defined him.

Blank Tiles is a great one-hander, poignant and moving.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

See you next week for more Fringe reviews!

Friday 9 September 2016

Postman's Park: Where London's Lost Heroes Live On

I paid my own airfare to the UK, and received discounted accommodation at the Ibis London Blackfriars.

When I was last in the UK in 2014, Narrelle Harris and I paid a visit to Postman's Park.

This small park near St Paul's Cathedral was given its name because it was established opposite the General Post Office building (later demolished in 1912).

It's notable not for its connections to postmen, however, but for its connections to heroes.

The park was opened in 1880 on the former churchyard of St Botolph's Aldersgate church, and was later expanded to take in churchyards from two demolished churches.

In 1900 it gained its unique central feature, the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice erected by the artist George Frederic Watts.

The memorial takes the form of a long wall, on which are affixed ceramic tablets commemorating people who died while saving others.

It's a very moving place to visit. For a start, the park itself is green and quiet. Being a former churchyard, there are old gravestones placed by the sides, a sombre reminder of its original purpose.

The memorial wall itself is the highlight of the park. It's very touching to read the simple messages detailing noble sacrifices from a bygone age.

Several, for example, speak of people who were drowned while saving others, as you can see below:

Sadly, the project declined after the death of Watts' widow Mary in 1938, with the last memorials of that era erected in 1931.

In 2009, however, the wall saw a new tablet added in memory of a man who'd died after rescuing a drowning boy in a canal in 2007. It remains to be seen whether more memorials will follow.

Next time you're in central London, take a moment to visit Postman's Park. It's one of those quiet corners of the great metropolis in which you can sit and catch your breath, and its stories of noble sacrifice are inspiring.

Postman's Park is located next to 1 St Martin's Le Grand, London, with entrances from St Martin's Le Grand and King Edward Street. Find more details at

Friday 2 September 2016

Marvellous Melbourne - A Short History

For a few years I had an app called Melbourne Historical on sale in the Apple and Android app stores. Alas the app is no more, as the company which commissioned it has closed down.

However, the content lives on. As a backgrounder within the app, I wrote a potted history of my city, Melbourne. It had to be detailed enough to be interesting, but snappy enough to be readable on a phone screen; no small challenge to create.

As Tuesday this week was Melbourne Day, the annual commemoration of the city's founding on 30 August 1835, I thought I'd share...

The Turning Basin in the Yarra River, where the first
European settlers of Melbourne landed in 1835.

The following brief timeline will help you place events, people and places within Melbourne's relatively short but eventful history. Though it's one of Australia's youngest state capitals (second only to Adelaide), it's packed a lot of excitement into its life so far.

40,000 years ago:
Members of the Kulin nation, an alliance of five Aboriginal peoples, settle the area now known as Melbourne. The Wurundjeri people inhabit inland areas while the Bunurong live along Port Phillip Bay and the southeast coast.

Melbourne is established by settlers from Tasmania. The first to arrive is John Batman, who claims to have negotiated a treaty with the local Aborigines. He's followed soon after by a more substantial settlement party led by John Fawkner.

1851: Victoria separates from New South Wales and becomes a separate colony of the British Empire. Almost immediately, the richest goldfields in the world are discovered west of Melbourne at Ballarat, leading to enormous immigration from around the globe.

Oppressed by unjust taxes and corrupt officials, a multinational group of miners stages an armed rebellion against British authorities at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat. Though bloodily quashed by the military, public opinion turns against the Governor, hastening the introduction of democratic rule in the following year.

1860s: Melbourne's population surpasses that of Sydney for the first time.

1880s: Melbourne's wealth reaches its peak in the era known as "Marvellous Melbourne". For a time the city is the second largest in the British Empire. Great international exhibitions are held and mighty buildings are erected, and it seems the prosperity will last forever.

1891: The economic bubble caused by rampant property speculation bursts, causing a spectacular crash. Businesses fail, investors lose their cash, and unemployment soars. Victoria enters a prolonged depression, and by the early years of the 20th century Sydney has regained its title as Australia's largest city.

1901: The six Australian colonies federate into a new nation, the Commonwealth of Australia. By the terms of the constitution, Melbourne will serve as the capital until a new city is established for the purpose between Sydney and Melbourne.

1914: Australia enters the First World War, sustaining enormous losses as a proportion of its population - from Victoria alone there are 19,000 casualties. The most resonant battlefield is that of Gallipoli, Turkey, where troops from Australia, New Zealand and Britain fight a losing campaign for nine months from April 1915. Though it ends in defeat, Gallipoli helps cement Australia's national identity.

1927: Australia's new capital city, Canberra, is finally established as the seat of power, and the federal government departs Melbourne.

1939: Australia enters World War II at the side of Britain. The direct threat to Australian territory from Japanese forces results in a much closer relationship with the USA; after the fall of the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur directs the Allied forces' Pacific campaign from Melbourne.

Melbourne hosts the Olympic Games, the first in which the athletes of all nations mingle during the closing ceremony.

1950s-1970s: Massive postwar immigration from around the world changes Melbourne's ethnic mix dramatically, transforming it into a multicultural city.

1991: A severe economic recession hits Melbourne particularly hard, with a property market crash and business closures. The surfeit of empty office space prompts authorities to encourage residential development in the downtown area.

The Black Saturday bushfires ravage rural Victoria, killing 173 people and skirting Melbourne's outer suburbs.

2010: Two decades after residents began to return, the wheel has turned full circle. Melbourne's city centre has become as lively as it was in the 19th century, drawing visitors to sporting events, shopping outlets, arts productions, restaurants and its thriving alleyway bar scene.

The story continues...