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Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Local colour

I have sometimes been critical of Bill Bryson for the way in which he too often seems to be a distant observer at a totally alien function. Seldom does he seem to involve himself with the local populace; he is a bit like an observer hiding in a corner rather than a participating member of the society. One might argue that tourists are more like observers than participants. However, to get the true flavour of a place, one has to meet and socialise with the natives. This is only possible where one has an excellent knowledge of the language and where the culture is not markedly different. Australians, Americans, and Brits are all in good positions to make judgements about each other's societies and they are well-placed to participate at the detailed level. Living in each other's houses is a good start but it is only when one tries to participate somehow in community activities that one gets some sense of what it may be like to live there permanently. One of the great eye-openers is amateur dramatics.

So it was that, a few weeks ago, I found myself at Strathmore Community Centre watching a play by 'local author' Horrie Leek. (And, if you were there, I was the one with the gardenia behind my left ear.) The play 'A Time in Tuscany' tells the story of how two people, Bernadette and Tony, married to others, find a common interest in the arts. This raises suspicions among their partners and the rest of the community and it is not long before their common interest leads to ‘more’. The play itself was mediocre and the production very competent. It was useful in giving an idea of what life must have been like in rural Australia fifty years ago. Goodness knows, an interest in the arts is still regarded with suspicion in all certain parts of the country.

One issue addressed peripherally (and humorously) is the relationship of art to pornography: (‘Why is it that all these ‘art’ books have pictures of people with no clothes on?’). One would have welcomed a more detailed discussion along the lines of the meaning and context of art e.g. as in Yazmina Reza’s long-running play Art.

One was able to discuss aspects of the production with the locals, all the while trying not to behave too much like an outsider. The intervals were most illuminating, watching who avoids whom and trying to fathom out why. There was the usual stampede by the smokers to get away for a fix, oblivious to the cold blasts they unleashed on the more disciplined of us every time an outside door was opened; icy blasts laced with evil-smelling carcinogens are not to be recommended.

So what does one learn from community activities at this level? Well, there has to be a time when, on an extended trip to a foreign country, one has to try to stop being a tourist an become a ‘local’. I’m not sure that Bill Bryson managed it – or if he did, he didn’t tell us about it. I’m not sure that I’m managing it either but then, I’m not getting paid for it…

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