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Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Signs and road safety

I have ceased to be surprised by the strange wording one sees on Australian notices. Yesterday, for example, I went out to post a letter. I wanted to know when it would arrive. Among the delivery schedule information was the assertion that, in remote country areas, mail would be delivered on the forth (sic) business day after posting. This notice, I suspect, is to be found on very many postboxes throughout Australia.

Then there is one of my personal favourites that I have come across many times. It accompanies other signs about roadworks. 'No lines; overtake only if safe,' it proclaims in effect.

At first, I just took note of the warning. Later, I took exception to it: why shouldn’t I overtake into danger if I wanted to? What is so special about the lack of lines that make it important to warn against dangerous overtaking? Did the idiot who phrased it think lack of road markings the most dangerous feature to be found on Australian roads? Is it somehow all right to overtake dangerously, as I constantly want to, when the road is clearly marked?

I have commented before that someone needs to give Australian road management authorities a good kick in the goolies. They should be replaced, perhaps at the federal rather than state level, with someone who understands the problems of traffic management in Australia as so few locals do – someone from abroad, perhaps.

This is not as radical as it sounds: often one comes across road improvements funded by central government rather than by state authorities. Notices sometimes proclaim that the finance is being provided by the federal government on safety grounds. This intimates that they are aware of the state-level problems. Couldn’t the central government be more insistent about the tune if they are paying the piper?

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Blue Poles

An American reviewer once described Jackson Pollock, the eminent painter as ‘Jack the Dripper’. I would not go that far but I am not a great admirer of his work. There is one exception: ‘Blue Poles No. 11’, to give it its full title. Indeed, such is my admiration of the work that I purchased the original many years ago. It now hangs in splendour in the hall of Bagshot Mansion where it looks quite ravissante.

There is an interesting piece of history surrounding this work. An acceptable but slightly inferior copy had been doing the rounds of exhibitions for many years to considerable critical acclaim. I used to smile while showing the real masterpiece to friends; they gasped with admiration. But I have also tried to keep my eye on the copy over the years to see what happens to it. The tale is intriguing.

In 1973, Gough Whitlam’s government purchased ‘Blue Poles No. 11’ for the Australian nation. (Whitlam was the premier of Australia sacked (yes, sacked) by John Kerr the Governor General. This bit of the Aussie constitution allows the Queen to dismiss Australian parliaments. Would you believe it?) There was an outcry at the time because the painting cost many millions of dollars. Thirty years later, Whitlam has the last laugh: it’s now worth ten times as much.

The painting normally hangs in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra and, as is my habit, I make a pilgrimage there from my base in Melbourne to look at it. This visit, I am having a wander round the delightful Canberra gallery when I come across a small notice telling me that the painting is on temporary loan to the State Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne.

Back in Melbourne, I find it in the international section of Victoria’s exquisite gallery. It looks even better there than it did in Canberra and, I have to admit, better than the version in Bagshot Mansion.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Magma & verandah

I have had a disputatious email from Myfanwy Trellis, taking me to task for referring to the replaced Mitsubishi Magna Verana AWD as a ‘Magma Veranda’. Ever anxious to maintain my reputation for strict accuracy, I look up the two words in Maquarie’s Australian dictionary.

‘Magma’ is defined as an intrusive piece of igneous rock, deriving from the Latin for ‘dross’. So what’s wrong with that, Myfanwy? I then look up veranda. The word’s precise etymology eludes me but it boils down to ‘A waste of space outside the house’. Again, what’s wrong? Pretty apposite I would have thought.

As it happens, I have had a replacement vehicle, again a Mitsubishi Magna, which is a lot more acceptable. For reference, the vehicle is an ES model, further down the specification chain. It has front-wheel drive and holds the road rather better. It is much more economical, too.

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The incinerator

There I was a few days ago, walking along one of the more obscure streets in the hinterland betwen Moonee Ponds and Aberfeldie when I saw a sign directing me to 'Incinerator Theatre'. I did a double take and continued on my way, wondering what it meant.

A few days later, I see another sign pointing to 'Incinerator Arts Centre'. Knowing full well that many artisitic creations belong in the incinerator because of their mediocrity or because destruction of the work is part of the artist's intention (usually the former), I am greatly puzzled that a facility seems to be provided for disposing of this dross. 'This requires further investigation,' I think and fuel up my zimmer frame for a local expedition.

Soon, I come across the building to which the signs had pointed: next to the municipal rubbish dump is the Incinerator Arts Complex. The incinerator part is no longer used; it is indeed an arts centre. However, the incinerator has an interesting pedigree.

After he designed Canberra, Walter Griffin - usually but slightly inaccurately referred to as 'Walter Burley Griffin' (we don't call Tony Blair 'Anthony Charles Linton Blair', do we?) - faded into relative obscurity, but he did manage to design one or two very minor municipal buildings around Australia. One of them - the best preserved of the bunch and the only one in Victoria - was the Essendon incinerator to which the signs had directed me. Unused since 1942, this 'iconic building' as a leaflet picked up there puts it, had very recently been refurbished. Whether the arts centre will be successful is too soon to say: it has only been open a few weeks and nothing much appeared to be going on. I had clearly just missed the opening ceremony and associated exhibition. What a shame. One thing appears inevitable, though: they'll play down the incinerator bit and concentrate on the Walter Burley Griffin element. Indeed, the building has already been named accordingly. Knowing a bit about community art, I can't help feeling though that it may be advantageous in the long run to be able to demonstrate the building's original function...

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Canberra Parliament

I had one or two similar experiences to Bill Bryson when I went to Canberra. At the security check, they noticed the tiny penknife I had forgotten I was carrying and put it in a secure place, giving me a ticket for it.

I wandered happily round the Parliament building musing on the security anomalies. I had just parked in an underground car park, right underneath the parliament building. There appeared to be nobody checking to see if someone had parked a car bomb although there were concrete barriers designed to stop suicide bombers in trucks making a direct run at the building.

When it was time to leave, at first I couldn’t find the ticket for my penknife. ‘You’ll recognize it easily,’ I said to the cop on duty. ‘It’s a Kalashnikov.’ Then I found the ticket and got the penknife back. And, do you know, the policeman fell about laughing at my little jest. One cannot imagine that happening in any other security-conscious country. Mind you, I wouldn’t be that facetious at an airport…

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Monday, February 23, 2004
Road safety

I have once more been irritated by some of the alleged 'road safety' measures encountered in Australia. Some of the misguided campaigns have spread, yet the road toll continues to be worryingly high. One probably takes the biscuit. It rang a false note last year - under the heading, 'Some more motoring comments' this is what I blogged just over a year ago, on 5 January 2003:
...there are periodic notices beside some roads saying that many people have been injured or killed in traffic accidents along the given stretch of road. The effect is ‘enhanced’ by small markers placed where the accidents took place: red for injury and black for fatality.

I object to this method of dealing with the subject, not because of its ghoulish nature but because I believe it is counterproductive. The markers are no bigger than those used to delineate the road’s edge. Consequently, they are very difficult to see, the black markers particularly so, although they are sometimes identifiable by attendant wreaths or bunches of flowers. As it happens, most of these marked sections are on long, straight, boring pieces of road. One can [only] wonder why people would have accidents on long, straight, boring pieces of road. Could it be that their attention wanders? Could it be that drivers’ attention is diverted from the proper task of watching the road ahead?

These roadside markers are a distraction; anything that makes a driver look to one side instead of straight ahead is ill-considered. If they cannot be made large enough to be noticeable from 100 metres, e.g. with full sized ‘coffin lids’, they should be abandoned. Perhaps the bereaved could apply some pressure in this respect.
This visit I have tried to be a bit more quantitative in my observations; the roadside markers are made of metal, plastic or, occasionally, wood. About a metre high, they are about forty mms thick and some sixty or seventy mms wide. The edge markers are white with small, red, reflective rectangles or discs close to the top. They are an excellent guide to what the road is doing, particularly at night. The death/injury markers are the same size. The black ones have a small cross instead of a reflector. I haven't yet examined a red one closely.

Driving in South Australia recently, I became aware once more that these accident markers distract a driver's attention. They seem to have spread to Victoria, too. I was constantly looking off to the side to see if I could see black or red posts. Then I gave up because I thought it too dangerous to carry on. It is only when there are groups of three or four that they tend to stand out. As I remarked a year ago, this sort of reminder is, in general, counterproductive; if one is going to make drivers aware of the accident toll on a given stretch of road, it should be done using unavoidable and intrusive symbols. Full sized coffin lids would be ideal. Otherwise, give it up.

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A while ago, I reported on the joys of listening to Australia's national Classical radio programme: Classic FM. It does not seem to be related to the UK channel of the same name. For a start, it is completely devoid of the frightful jingles that are the most prominent feature of the UK version. It's all very well having a commercial channel but the juxtaposition of mindless commercial jingles and classical music is more than my ancient, sensitive soul can bear. Such ABC 'commercials' as there are are for classical concerts or records and any extract played is well-chosen and entirely appropriate. Alternatively, the 'puff' is spoken. The very successful UK channel should learn the same lesson: no rubbish to be played immediately after (or before) any type of 'classical' music featured.

If I have one gripe it is with the coverage: it’s far from national and I found myself frustrated as I began to get out of range of the station on a given frequency. It would either be swamped with static (and the Magma’s fan doesn’t help in this respect) or overwhelmed by ‘bleeding’ from an adjacent frequency. Searching for alternative frequencies is often unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, the channel has given me great pleasure as I have rushed hither and thither round Australia. And one of the most interesting features of ABC Classic FM is the series ‘Keys to Music’ in which Graham Abbott and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra examine a classical piece or format in some detail. You can listen to the most recent broadcasts here. These programmes are well-established but the presentation changed recently. Instead of being coldly studio-bound, Graham and the orchestra have been recording the material in front of a studio audience. I was privileged to attend the first four and very interesting they were, too. I will be blogging about them shortly.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004
Rene Rivkin

Rene Rivkin is a flamboyant Australian investor who makes mountains of money out of his business. Several years ago, I heard him relate that he had 70 (yes, seventy) vintage cars in his collection. Last year, he was convicted of insider trading.

It has taken a while to get him to begin serving his nine-month prison sentence which was, in fact, ‘merely’ weekend detention. He has used every trick in the book, most of them medical. Eventually, his manoeuvrings have been overcome but it does seem that nine months’ detention, at weekends only, is a remarkably lenient sentence. The latest is that he will be having ECT to ‘cure’ his depression. Let us hope most sincerely that it is effective and not fatal The lesson seems to be that if you’re rolling in it legal and medical systems will bend to your will. The best example is Ernest Saunders in the UK.

Saunders was convicted of some financial shenanigans in relation to the takeover of Guinness. He was sentenced to several years’ continuous imprisonment but almost immediately developed ‘serious’ symptoms. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and released. A month or two later, he resumed his normal life. Currently, he lectures on some form of financial management but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to add ‘How I am the only person in history to have recovered from Alzheimer’s disease’. I wonder if he’s been giving tips on medical/legal manipulation to Rivkin…

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Monday, February 09, 2004
TV revolution

Melbourne has a free newssheet which seems to follow the Australian fashion of believing that 'News' equals a combination of Sport' and 'Entertainment'. I offer you the headline from the 21 January issue: 'TV revolution'. Here’s a bit more:
A television revolution giving Australian viewers unparalleled choice, convenience and control over their viewing was launched today.

Foxtel announced it would roll out its digital pay-TV service over the next 2.5 years to offer 130 channels and a range of interactive services…[blah, blah, blah.]
This ‘Foxtel’ is a product of the greatly loved and respected former Australian Rupert Murdoch. I have yet to look into the ownership of the free newssheet but I would bet the Murdoch Empire to a kangaroo turd that it is yet another of the communications mogul’s products.

Far be it from a mere Pom to suggest ways of revolutionising TV Down Under. Could I suggest however, with due sincerity, that a blank cheque to develop any type of information/communication medium should be given to the great man to save us any further trouble with falling standards? A good example of the man’s phenomenal talent for raising standards is what happened to the UK’s The Times. Single-handed, he has turned that paper from a broadsheet Sun-type rag, as it had become under Harold Evans, into one of the leading newspapers of accurate record in the West.

And Airstrip One should take note, too. We should hand over the highly partisan, down-market BBC in its entirety to the cultured and literate Murdoch Empire. We have wallowed in the BBC’s sleazy output for far too long. Give us ‘Commercial’ media along the Australian and American lines as soon as practicable.

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Drug problems

There has been a lot of political discussion here about the possibility of providing secure injecting rooms for drug addicts. Believe it or not, the Prime Minister of the Liberal (i.e. Con) Party has come out against the idea. Knowing the views of his larger twin brother Michael, the leader of Airstrip One's Cons, I suppose one could have worked it out. The new leader of Australia's La Bore Party, Mark Latham, is not awfully keen on the idea, either.

I wonder how they square their positions with the de facto provision of 'Sharps' disposal facilities in the toilets of Canberra's Houses of Parliament. Could it be that one needs an injection to be in a suitable frame of mind to listen to the political discussions in the House and the Senate or does one need to go on 'a trip' afterwards?

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What’s the connection?

Just before I left Airstrip One, I was preparing a blog about three people in the news. It was my intention to give some misleading (but accurate) information about them and ask about the connection I had in mind. This puzzle would have been accompanied by a collection of links that would have established the relationship.

Anyway, bugger that: I’ll just get on with the story without the links and I’ll tell you the answer tomorrow or whenever I feel like it. The three people in question are Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, and Paul Macartney. So what is the connection?

Students of scandalous behaviour by people in the public eye will quickly realise that Michael Jackson has been accused of paedophilia and that Phil Spector has been arraigned for murder. They’ll also be aware that Paul Macartney has been up to something or the other: releasing a new record perhaps or having his wife give birth to a baby while the old ’Puddlian is getting on for Methuselah’s age. Both ought to be illegal but aren’t.

Dare I suggest that it’s nothing at all to do with illegal or even questionable activities? As another irritating geriatric often says ‘Remember, the clues are there…as we go through the rigmarhole’. Josh, the entirely genuine and relevant geriatric, invites your consideration of the matter. Prizes have yet to be determined.

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Mobile ring tones

There I was, enjoying the view from a bus in my favourite Australian city – Adelaide - when the peace was shattered by a mobile phone playing 'The Sting' theme. It had been quite well programmed but it was, nevertheless, irritating in the extreme. It reminded me of several things more I wanted to say about mobile phones.

Just before I left Blighty, I heard of a service that would let one download new ring tones from the internet. I was aghast - no 'silent' tone was mentioned. It made me realise that I have another tenet to add to my manifesto: ring tones in mobiles should be banned; all mobiles should be manufactured without a ring system; they should only function on 'vibrate' or 'silent'. Since acquiring my last mobile phone, I have never used it in any other way. This had great advantages: it disturbs no-one and I can ignore it if I want to.

Women, who inevitably bury their phones set to maximum volume in deep bags, will have to make changes: phones are now small enough to be carried in a pocket. Such phones and their associated pockets could, if they have not already done so, become the next fashion accessory of note as well as freeing the rest of us from the cacophony. Hardliners, dedicated to the svelte look, will no doubt oppose this measure but I would have to insist until the phone manufacturers were able to sell 'remote' vibrate pads, about the size of an HRT patch.

Interestingly, having been present at a recording session recently, it was clear that even phones set to 'vibrate' interfere with many electronic devices. So, when you're asked to turn your phone off, even when it's set to 'vibrate' or 'silent' or whatever your mode is called, please do it.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2004
A trip to Queensland

One of my bigger trips away from civilization this year involved a visit to Southern Queensland. On the way, I passed through Lightning Ridge (NSW), an opal town that also has the ‘attraction’ of being very hot. While I was there, the temperature was well above 40 Celsius (that’s 104 Fahrenheit). I stepped out from an air-conditioned establishment to be met by a hot (yes, hot) wind. It was as hot in the shade as in the sun.

Later in the day, as things cooled down, I found myself on totally deserted roads for about fifty minutes. The only creatures I came across were cattle wandering aimlessly about the highway (and this on one of Australia’s major roads) and about 100 kangaroos drinking from puddles where the road went through a shady wood.

There were intermittent stormy showers – I watched the lightning all around. I did wonder if the lack of other vehicles betokened an unwillingness to venture out. Recently, several people had been struck by lightning in Queensland, one while playing cricket. However, as we all know, one of the safest places during an electrical storm is in a car. But oh the rain: I’ve never known anything like it. In one house, water came in round the window frames. Fortunately, I’ve only had one or two days of that sort of thing.

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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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