Friday 26 April 2019

Melbourne Secrets

This is an update of one of the very first articles I wrote about my beloved Melbourne, back when I was fresh to being a freelance writer and still discovering new things about my adopted city. It ran in a local newspaper but never went online. Enjoy!

In the shadow of the great public buildings of Melbourne lie many treasures. Some are historical curiosities, others the forgotten debris of the past.

These overlooked places are reminders of the way Melbourne piles up new examples of the present without ever quite clearing away its history. Here are ten places to get you looking at the city in a different light.

Block Court. This was once an arcade linking Collins Street to the famous Block Arcade. It was built in 1929 on a design by Harry Norris, the architect responsible for a number of notable buildings, including Majorca House in Flinders Lane. It’s little noticed now, because at one point the arcade was walled off and a shop (now a bank) was inserted in the reclaimed space.

If you walk around to the Block Arcade and look along the passage running next to the entry of the Charles Dickens pub, you’ll see the matching fa├žade to its Collins Street entrance. Also check out the striking art deco features in the remaining length of the arcade.

Elizabeth Street Cat. Walk north along Elizabeth Street from Flinders Street Station. On the east side, you’ll pass a simple grey building at 92 Elizabeth Street. Keep walking toward Bourke St, then look back at the side of the building.

On the wall is a large cartoon head of a cat. The image is faded, but its green eyes and gold background stand out clearly in contrast with the battleship grey of the walls. Rumour has it that this cat was once part of a light bulb advertisement. For whatever reason, it’s withstood the ravages of time, even surviving a repaint of the building.

Athenaeum Library. When passing the Athenaeum Theatre during the day, take a peek into the private lending library on the top floor. Though the Melbourne City Council has its own lending library in the CAE building on Flinders Lane, this private edition dates from the earliest years of the city.

Founded in the 1840s, it’s served Melburnians’ reading needs for a very long time indeed. The current fit-out is a survivor of the 1920s. You suspect Agatha Christie would have felt at home there.

Capitol Theatre. The extraordinary ceiling of the Capitol Theatre was designed by architect Walter Burley Griffin in 1924. However, there's more here than meets the eye. When the building was remodelled in the 1960s to include a shopping arcade below the auditorium, public access to areas such as lounges, galleries and foyers was lost.

Now, under the custodianship of RMIT University, the cinema is being restored. This year the Capitol will reopen and present movie festivals under the direction of ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), thus bringing its story full circle.

Turning Basin. The north bank of the Yarra is much neglected in favour of its showy southern side. However, the area just below Queen Street was the location of the city’s first port. In colonial days, this area was bustling with sailors, merchants and passengers, including those bound for the goldfields.

It was so congested, the port was eventually replaced by facilities further down river, and at Port Melbourne. Today, all that remains of the port is a recreation area at the Turning Basin, where ships would turn to resume their journey out to sea. Completed in 1997, the project’s chief feature is a set of figureheads rising from a wooden dock.

Melba’s Birthplace. From Bridge Road in Richmond, walk north along Burnley Street toward Victoria Gardens shopping centre. About halfway there, on the east side, is a plaque on the side of a nondescript brick building, home to a furniture outlet.

This marks the birthplace of Dame Nellie Melba, the city’s famous opera star of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The building on the site in 1861 was known as “Doonside”, and the new baby as Helen Porter Mitchell. “Melba” was a shortened version of the city’s name.

North Carlton Railway Station. The Inner Circle railway once ran from Melbourne Zoo across North Carlton and North Fitzroy, linking up with the line at Clifton Hill. The track was removed in the early 1980s, and the former railway reserve now features a long narrow recreation reserve known as Linear Park.

Halfway along this park stands the North Carlton Railway Station, now the home of a neighbourhood centre. Though lacking a railway, the building is recognisably a former station, with its distinctive red brick structure.

Edith Cavell’s Memorial. King’s Domain is littered with monuments to notable people from the past. Some are still well known: monarchs like Edward VII, war leaders like Thomas Blamey. But among these towering monuments sits a memorial to a British nurse from the First World War.

Edith Cavell was head of a medical training school in the suburbs of Brussels when the conflict broke out. Although British nurses were evacuated, she somehow remained at her post and assisted stranded British soldiers to escape. Eventually found out by the German army, she was executed by firing squad in 1915. Her famous last words outlived her: “I know now that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred and no bitterness towards anyone.”

Flagstaff Gardens. This public space looks like the humble cousin of its glamorous counterparts such as the Carlton and Fitzroy Gardens. It’s actually a place of great interest in Melbourne’s history. It began its colonial life as the city’s first cemetery, and in 1851 hosted a huge bonfire to celebrate Victoria’s separation from New South Wales.

A large flagstaff at the park’s highest point was used to signal ships and relay messages, before the invention of the telegraph rendered it redundant. Various memorials and plaques dot the hilltop, a reminder of the days when the location was an important part of the city’s life.

Kennett Gargoyle. On the eastern transept of St Patrick’s Cathedral is a rather unusual gargoyle. Or perhaps not that unusual. In medieval times, it was common practice for stonemasons to base these stone creatures on the faces of local dignitaries. In a sense, they were stone cartoons.

In 1992, stonemason Tom Carson carved a likeness of then-Premier Jeff Kennett when creating two new gargoyles for the place of worship. It’s an unmistakeable take on the unforgettable politician, with its long face and distinctive hair. And yet another example of how the city effortlessly blends the old and the new.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

The Beauty of Lake Bled, Slovenia

I wrote this piece for a newspaper years ago, after visiting Slovenia. It never went online, so here it is now...

I’m standing in the light rain, holding an umbrella above the head of an artist as he paints a silhouette on the back of a painting for Narrelle Harris.

What’s the subject? Well, it’s a depiction of me holding an umbrella over him, with Narrelle standing nearby.

Confused? So am I.

But then I look up to see the beautiful lake before us, punctuated by an island topped with a small elegant church - itself dwarfed by a mighty castle on the sheer cliff above it - and everything seems just fine.

That’s the effect that Slovenia’s Lake Bled has on people. As a postglacial lake within the foothills of the mighty Julian Alps, the lake and its accompanying town have long attracted those looking for a retreat.

Bled Castle, high up upon a rocky outcrop above the waters, was first mentioned in historical documents in 1004 AD.

In the 19th century the town developed as a health resort for the careworn aristocrats of Central Europe. It then became the summer home of the King of Yugoslavia, a tradition maintained by communist President Tito after World War II.

Nowadays Slovenia is an improbably small independent nation within the European Union, and Lake Bled exerts its charms on the international tourist set. Which is why I’m standing in misty drizzle, impatiently waiting for a silhouette to be completed on the back of a landscape painting of the lake.

Our artistic friend senses me fuming, laughs and urges me to “Take it easy, take it slow, remember your blood pressure.” And I do, smiling at his languid eccentricity.

All this, however, is a mere precursor to visiting the island within the centre of the lake. Bled Island has drawn the eye at every step of our three kilometre stroll around the lake’s edge from the township.

In the centre of its greenery sits the elegant pink-tinted 17th century baroque church which was built on the remains of earlier places of worship. Beyond it on the horizon, massive snow-streaked mountains provide a dramatic sense of scale.

We engage one of the gondolas stationed along the shore to take us there. Klemen, our rangy gondolier, reveals he’s a social studies student when he’s not on the lake rowing visitors back and forth via the twin oars set in high rowlocks at the end of the vessel.

He drops us at the base of a set of broad, pitted white steps which run up to the church.

The island contains just enough diversions to occupy the 30 minutes allotted until our return - including a go at the “lucky bell” within the gilded church interior, which must be rung three times while making a wish.

It takes a tad more shoulder movement than I expect to get the thing swinging, so I forget to make a wish and by then the momentum’s built up so much that it rings seven times.

Oh well, I’m lucky just being here.

Back on shore, we have a late lunch, ordering way too much food at Gostilna Pri Planincu, a restaurant serving Slovenian and Serbian cuisine.

The dishes are enormous, but the waiter laughs and says “Grandma started the tradition and we can’t give it up now!”

Bled is like that, it seems: old-fashioned, relaxed and almost too much for the senses.

Friday 12 April 2019

Leprechauns of Dublin

On my visit to Dublin in 2011, I was delighted to discover a newly-opened museum devoted to Irish folklore. As the newspaper story I wrote about it never went online, here it is for your amusement...

“We make stuff up - that’s what we do. It makes for lousy husbands, but good storytellers.”

My guide at Dublin’s National Leprechaun Museum, Mark, is not boosting the marriage prospects of his fellow Irishmen.

He does, however, have a case regarding the Irish skill in storytelling, with supporting evidence in the exhibition he’s about to introduce me to.

Thanks to animators over the years, the leprechaun has become a well-known figure; we can all recall his buckled hat, beard, pipe, beguiling accent and pot of gold. “Everyone who comes in here gives the same description,” says Mark.

But he’s here to put me straight on the little people and their many other mythical colleagues. And that’s the key to this new attraction in the Irish capital - despite the name, it’s actually a museum devoted to all of the island nation’s rich folklore, covering creatures both famous and little-known.

Entering the exhibition, Mark leads me to a tunnel that tapers to make me feel like a giant, looking back to see his tiny silhouette at the opening. Then I’m on my own, encountering the first bit of fun: the Giants’ Room.

It’s decorated with an enormous chair, table and lamp, as if the gigantic householder might arrive home at any moment and settle in for a spot of reading.

Mark’s told me that people can do what they like in here, so visitors often clamber up onto the furniture for a giant’s-eye view.

Then it’s time for some high-tech content in the Map Room. A big circular table is illuminated with impressive projections, outlining mythical creatures of the night - banshees among them - with the aid of a large map of the Emerald Isle.

The Rain Room is next, hung with upside-down umbrellas which keep the trickling water off the visitors below; which leads to an impressive pot of gold on a central pillar. And here I’m met by a pleasant surprise - a real live storyteller, who weaves a cautionary tale involving leprechauns and the human greed for the precious metal.

She has more tales to tell in the succeeding room of burnished bronze walls, onto which are projected images of animals and fairies. Irish fairies are not built along the lines of Disney’s Tinkerbell, but are capricious and powerful creatures given to stealing baby boys, I’m told, among other scary activities.

The story teller also relates some outlandish tales of Finn McCool, a legendary warrior whose feats got bigger with each retelling.

After peering into a magical well, I end up in the cosy bookshop and cafe, having tea with museum founder Tom O’Rahilly.

“We don’t make a lot of stuff in Ireland, really, but we’re famous for telling stories,” he says, explaining how the museum came about. “So okay, I thought, let’s look at culture. The leprechaun thing kind of popped into my mind.

“I was out on the beer one night in London, got up the next morning, and then suddenly thought ‘If Irish people get so wound up about them, how come they’re still here? Where do they come from?’

“What’s important here is that it’s oral history. When it’s told to you, when someone’s there communicating with you and seeing the light in your eyes, that’s a powerful thing.”

The National Leprechaun Museum is open daily at 1 Jervis St, Dublin, Ireland. Find opening hours and entry fees at its website.

Friday 5 April 2019

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2019 (Part 2)

Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows at the 2019 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are three new reviews...

1. Masterclass
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

If you’ve ever wondered about the truth path to comedy, Stuart Daulman has got the lecture for you. His masterclass guides you through the stages of Initiate, Perpetuate and Inflate to a successful comedic career and possibly the loss of everything and everyone you love. But hey, that’s comedy!

Masterclass is very meta, with its references to the comedy scene and how comedians interact with each other, but there are plenty of recognisable tropes too: the standard Comedian Greeting to the crowd, banter to maintain control (much more important than comedy), and shows that are more like awkward public therapy for the performer than entertainment for the audience.

Daulman’s knowing lecture, accompanied by oddly endearing overhead projector illustrations, only stumbles at the end, when he dons his flannel shirt and sneakers to deliver a slightly too-long set that would showcase his theories more effectively if it hit those points more rapidly. Comedy aficionados or people already in The Scene may get the most out of it, but Masterclass is a confidently performed and funny inside view of the comedian’s Hard Knock Life.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Stickin' Together
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Two friends in colourful jumpers share a flat... in space! Yes, Luis and Luelin of Lessons With Luis play John and Robby, two guys who live in a space station with an invisible cat. It's a sitcom, basically, and not of a modern kind - canned laughter follows every cheesy joke, and the story is plotted out to lead to a happy conclusion of the "I've learned something today" type.

However, the sitcom does not go to plan. At the next meta level up, Luis and Luelin descend into awkward bickering between each scene, as Luis - so lovely and charming with us - treats his brother with an increasingly bullying tone. Luelin, who entertainingly only speaks with the pre-recorded dulcet tones of TV announcer Pete Smith, finally mutinies, and Luis has to overcome this challenge if the happy end is to be attained for both the duo and their characters.

It's a fun, light-hearted romp, with lots of naff gags and low-pressure audience involvement, and easy laughter over the increasingly shambolic antics. The songs are silly, the rapport between Luis and Luelin is full of energy, and the sitcom concept is amusingly ludicrous. Staged at 6pm, it's good fun for any age and a nice starter to an evening of comedy.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Busting a Nut
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Felicity Ward lives in London now, and she’s very excited to have finally experienced a hot English summer ("It’s like one of your days in winter, Melbourne!") though it’s making British people behave in peculiar ways.

Thus Ward springboards into an hour of confident, fabulous comedy, dismantling and reconfiguring ideas like unconditional love, the Black Dog, a holiday in Italy with her mother, and more realistic inspirational (or rather, "unspirational") quotes. We revisit the highlights and lowlights of her relationship and recent wedding, her in-laws who feed her constantly, and the problem some people have with champagne glasses.

In short, Ward is a first-class stand up comic, flitting from topic to topic with oodles of confidence, gleefully owning her bad behaviour and being hilarious from start to finish.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.