Neil

Okay, this is not going to be the ultimate in self-absorbed egotism revealing the characteristics and complexities of just one soul among the seven billion on this planet. In fact, it’s not even going to be an analysis of the origins of the name Neil or its equivalents like Niall or Neenoo [1] or, as one Aunt persists in handwritten cards twice a year, Neal. Neither will I look at the many famous Neil’s of popular culture, like Mr Armstrong, Kinnock and the hippy from the Young Ones [2], or linger on the hilarious japes where people might just kneel down after you tell them your name. Instead, in this episode of Neil, I would like to consider the art of getting a picture of oneself, a tenuous link because I am called Neil and when I try to take a picture of myself I am taking a picture of Neil, geddit?

Of course, now I have come to realise that this action has come to be regarded as a ‘selfie’, which is likely to become a ‘selfs’ and then just a general mumble sounding something like ‘sufphs’ as the transformative degeneration of language continues. And I think, well why not, let the young people mess up our language; it’s only fair as we screw over the planet for them, in a period of inaction that will become known as ‘planballs abbottburger’ or something. As long as enough selfies capture the moment the rising sea submerges the Sydney Harbour Bridge everything will be OK.

Anyway, the pictures I want to write about are not really selfies in the take a snap of yourself with a shaving cut in the mirror or the pout from above with bum slightly sticking out sense [3]. They are the pictures you seek at landmarks, on holidays or in situ, usually to prove you are alive / around / doing something far more interesting than anyone else who happens to see it on Facebook. They are the pictures that break up the filmstrip capturing one hundred slightly alternate images of the Eiffel Tower, the poses scattered among five hundred mountain views of the north face of the Eiger. They are the profile pictures and the images that can go on a mother’s day card to say, “hey, look at me, here I am, you love me so much here is a picture of me!” In that respect, they are not much different from selfies.

Like most things in life, I’m generally ambivalent towards having pictures taken of my own image. I possess enough vanity to delete those in which my hair looks too grey, my teeth too crooked, and my breasts too flabby. This is a vetting process that becomes increasingly difficult as hair gets greyer, teeth rot and flab gathers. But still, a picture occasionally emerges in which I think I look quite alright…it may not make one of those stupid exclusive for hot people only dating sites, but it’ll pass and has a pretty background of hills or something. It’s wonderful what an amazingly beautiful backdrop can do to distract from an unflattering gut angle.

So, I don’t really go round seeking shots of myself all of the time. Mostly they are meeting a requirement of proving I am alive and well in a location taking lots of pictures of it. For some reason, the fact that you have one hundred and twenty six pictures of the Statue of Liberty is insufficient to prove you were there; only when you are in front of the camera, thrusting your torch arm in the air like a total pilchard, is the shoot complete and future memories can be safely set in archive.

Of course, a big part of the reason that only a very small proportion of the thousands of photos I have include Neil as a subject is that Neil is usually the artist (in an informal and non-commercial sense) and the scene is the subject. My photography is typically a subjective composition of an objective subject, with the objective being to subject the viewer to experience my subjective position from an objective standpoint. And how can you object to something as straightforward a subject as that? I like to capture the world around me from my perspective, and not so much the perspective of me around the world.

The other obvious limiting factor is that frequently I am taking pictures on my own and thus face the perennial challenge of achieving the successful selfie. A chunky DSLR is far less selfie friendly than a phone, a battle of physiology and technology and art. I find a chunky DSLR often leads to a chunky picture of me. Even a phone picture seems to bring out an extra chin, as if the strain of extending an arm and finding the button to press is all too much for the body and brain to deal with. The use of a timer can be an effective way round this, but this is subject to the hope that the camera will stay level on the rock you have balanced it on and then being able to safely scramble over a yawning gap and on to some crumbling rocks, flatten your hair, and smile in ten seconds. Plus my camera decides it will only allow a ten second time delay if you choose a burst of about 12 pictures, resulting in a comical set of identical but slightly different frames in which I get progressively bemused.

N_burst

There is an unspoken etiquette, typically in such populous spots as lookouts and famous landmarks, in which people will mutually take a photo for one another. Often being alone and with a chunky DSLR I frequently get earmarked for this high pressure task. This shot could make or break their visit; either they will look back at the time they were gorgeously posed over a breathtaking valley or recoil in the moment they looked a right munter with eyes closed around some dark grainy landscape that resembles an abandoned nuclear test site. I quite like the pressure, the chance to fiddle with someone else’s camera briefly, and be a part of their trip for a few seconds. And I don’t mind the reciprocal offers that come back, though invariably my unspoken reaction is of a picture produced that is at best ‘alright’.

Part of the reason that the picture is only ‘alright’ is how Neil ends up looking in it. Not so much in terms of hair greyness or breast flabbiness, but more in the composition and pose. I, of course, would have taken it very differently, and imagined that the big mountain would be to the left and I would feature in the bottom right corner; whereas the result is a close up of me in the middle with an overflowing bin expertly captured in the foreground.

As for the pose, well, this is the biggest dilemma. Open toothy smile, closed smirk, moody sulk? Face on, side on, backside on looking out, down, up, inside out? And what to do with those hands?  In pockets, on hips, defensive balls position as if awaiting a free kick, relaxed down the side, laid back on a wall, aloft in celebration, pointing in the middle distance? My two default poses are arms dangling down looking somewhat artificial and uncomfortable or, particularly in dramatic terrain, spread out wide and accompanied with an open-gaped mouth as if I am about to wail out a big ‘TA DA!’

And so, by a process of elimination it turns out the best way to be able to monitor pose, determine composition and retain control over a picture of Neil is to make use of a mirror. Every accomplished selfie obsessed tweeter knows this. But unlike bathrooms and bedrooms, there is a relative dearth of mirrors at tourist sites and attractions around the world. Occasionally though it’s possible to find some random public artwork or street furniture in the right place at the right time. Like around St Paul’s Cathedral in London town, bedecked in a colourful fury of post-Olympian September sunshine. What more can you ask for than an iconic landmark soaring into blue skies as vivid red London buses swirl around its base intermingling with the green remains of summer. Suddenly the scattering of shiny balls lining the pavements nearby are less a random obstruction and more the ultimately funky selfie mirror. Real but distorted, much like London town itself.

N_selfie2

The issue remains that it’s practically impossible to take a reflected picture like this without the camera getting in the way. Heaven forbid the disaster should the flash also decide to burst forth. I’ve tried moving it from my face and to the side, with haphazard results and a much more convoluted pose. Shooting from the hip is an option, but this looks even more bizarre, bordering on the sickly perverse. In the end, I decided I quite liked a) my face hidden and b) the dominance of the camera itself. For this is how you would typically see me, around St Paul’s, slacking off on a sunny September day. This is me in the moment, doing what I love, doing what so many are doing around me. This is Neenoo, Neal, Neil.


[1] This one comes from the land of my niece

[2] Gosh, there really aren’t that many luminaries with my name hey?

[3] Both of which a former Prime Minister of Australia likely performed

Links

I’m Kevin and I’m here to help you shave: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/soapbox/article/-/17945464/kevin-rudd-posts-shaving-selfie/

Planballs Abbottburger?: http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/09/03/direct-action-a-gross-waste-and-abbotts-right-to-cap-its-funding/

Propicfails: http://www.heavy.com/social/2013/03/the-20-worst-profile-picture-fails/

If you are really bovverred: http://snapguide.com/guides/take-good-selfies/

St Paul’s: http://www.stpauls.co.uk/

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture

Kangaroo country

Nothing can be quintessentially more Australian than the sight of a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet riding a kangaroo to work. Apart from a man on a kangaroo in a cork hat and grubby white singlet hopping over lethal spiders and snakes while fleeing a bushfire with a rescued koala, only to get to the safety of the beach and discovering a shark infested bay peppered with box jellyfish, causing a bunch of boofheads to gingerly enter the water in thongs to retrieve their cricket ball with one hand because the other is grasping onto a stubby of VB like it is the last bottle of insipid but undoubtedly cold beer in the world.

Of course, all of that is nonsense [1], lest I be sued by VB which is a popular and well-loved beer in certain areas and so well-loved it appears on the shirts of the Australian cricket team, which perhaps speaks for itself in so many ways. What is undeniable is that the kangaroo is an icon, so much so that it appears on the national airline and encourages you to buy home grown products. If you ask someone overseas to mention the three things that come to mind when they think of Australia, they will most likely say beaches, kangaroos, and punitive policies for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum, dressed up as a concern for their safety and not really about winning votes from a cluster of the population who have an underlying xenophobia stemming from their own challenges in paying the mortgage on a home which is unnecessarily big for their needs and encountering traffic on the way to Kmart, thus displacing the blame for this onto others who are widely vilified and helpless to stand up for themselves [2]. Still, we have nice beaches and lots of open space for kangaroos, so it’s worth defending right?

The kangaroo was here long before the first boat people arrived to overrun the country and its culture. A popular myth is that ‘kangaroo’ meant something like ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’ when Cook, Banks et al enquired of local Aboriginals what on earth this peculiar creature was. Like all good myths it has subsequently been debunked [3] but you can understand why it still does the rounds. It’s a convenient story that encapsulates the sense of the bizarre, the other-worldly, the weirdness of the flora and fauna that was encountered by the first boat people. A befuddlement that continues to this day as more people spill, primarily, out of international airport terminals and come face to face with Australia.

Initially you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is a sunnier, newer, even happier [4] version of the UK, with a US touch of the gargantuan about it. But what sets it apart as wholly unique, exquisitely exotic is its flora and fauna. The kangaroo, perhaps in conjunction with wily white Eucalypt trees and shrieking cockatoos, is the readily available, easily accessible face of the Australian bush, and a long, long way from distant, familiar lands. Perhaps that is why, even after seven years, the sight of a kangaroo bounding out of the trees and across golden grasslands brings a smile to my face and, still, a sense of wonder.

I cannot write about these experiences and this topic without covering time on Red Hill, Canberra. I may have written about this place before. I came across it three days into arrival in Australia, fighting a fight against deep afternoon jetlag driven sleep. Determined not to fall into a coma and then awake all night, I set out along charming suburban streets on one of those beautiful, clear, warming late winter afternoons. It could have almost been an old English summer. Gradually climbing in altitude and property price, the streets ended abruptly as the very richest backed their way onto the grassland and steeply rising bush of Red Hill Reserve. Without intricate knowledge of paths and trails I headed straight up, short and steep to the lookout cafe. Here I viewed Canberra from high for the first time, had a coffee and saw a handful of Eastern Grey Kangaroos milling about without much of a care in the world (much like myself really).

Since that day I almost always saw kangaroos at Red Hill, particularly as I was wont to wander there of an evening. Huge mobs would gather in the grassier patches at the bottom while others would linger along the ridge up high. Mothers and their kids would eye me with suspicion or, perhaps, familiarity. A stand-off ensued, one waiting for the other to move on. But I often emerged the victor in these early days, because I would have my camera with me, and everyone knows that as soon as you bring your camera up to your eye to take a picture of some wildlife, the wildlife flees.

K_kangaroos

Certainly it was hard to restrain myself from taking a picture every time I saw a kangaroo. It was a natural reaction because back then it was all so extraordinary and therefore entirely warranted. Increasing familiarity has restrained my picture-taking compulsion since. In fact, I don’t tend to take my camera up Red Hill anymore…hell…I don’t even go up Red Hill anymore, since I am presently 3,000 kilometres west and it is a trifle inconvenient. However, frequently armed with camera elsewhere a kangaroo or dozen have popped into view. They emerge within the context of a wider landscape, as natural as, well, a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet. They undoubtedly add something to the mood, grounding the scene in something that is so very obviously Australian. And thus, still, so very exciting.

————————————————-

Kosciuszko National Park is one of Australia’s great national parks, taking in vast swathes of upland country and river valleys in New South Wales. In winter the highest parts are caked in snow, in summer all parts are swathed in flies. It’s a fairly unique environment for Australia, which is mostly dry, brown and flat. Termed alpine, it is not so in the sense of being blessed with gigantic peaks and glaciers; instead ridges and clumpy mounts offer a scene more akin to the rounded peaks of northern and western Britain [5]. It is an ecosystem that is all-encompassing, from rare possums and miniature toads in the boggy bare stretches high up, to common wombats and kangaroos and all of their derivatives [6] in the bush and plains further down. 

Kosciuszko is not so far from Canberra but on one occasion, having spent some time working in the town of Albury, I approached it from the west. It was a long weekend of high country meandering, through the northeast of Victoria and into New South Wales before crossing the Main Range and ploughing on more familiar roads back to Canberra. Approaching the end of March the landscape was in a state of transition, from the dry, warm summer to freezing cold winter nights and winds and rains and occasional snows. The hairpin drive up Mount Buffalo – the closest thing Australia has to an Alpe d’Huez – came with freezing fog that cleared to warm sunshine. The valley town of Bright was commencing its ascent into blushing autumn saturation and wood-fired air. And the trudge along an endless ridge towards Mount Feathertop was blanketed in cloud, a stark contrast to the clear fresh vale below.

Crossing into New South Wales and finally into Kosciuszko National Park, there is eventually a sense that these are proper mountains and not big hills, as the highest points of the Main Range, glowing in the sun above the tree line, rise up more dramatically from this western vantage. The road on this side twists and turns along a narrowing river valley, the dense green bushland plummeting down the hillsides occasionally broken by huge pipes belonging to the mammoth Snowy River Hydro scheme. At some point the road rises and crosses the range at the evocatively named Dead Horse Gap, but before this tortuous ascent, there is respite at Geehi Flats.

Geehi Flats appears like some hidden valley idyll, where the opaque water of the Swampy Plains River broadens and a swathe of grassland punctures the dark green tangle of gum trees. A spacious area along the river offers rustic camp spots and opportunity to amble. At the northern end a couple of old wooden huts testify to exploration and discovery and, now abandoned, the harsh realities of surviving in the high country [7]. Within this clearing the afternoon sunshine illuminates the rise up to the Main Range and onwards to the white cotton wool clouds hovering above. And as I stare at the serenity, a large Eastern Grey kangaroo stares back. Suddenly I feel like the intruder.

K_kossyroo

On the face of it, it is nothing remarkable…a sighting of an animal that I have seen hundreds of times before and so common in an area where it is protected to thrive. But in the landscape, in the setting, in the primitive high country context it feels very special, like I am the first white man to see it and it is the first kangaroo to see a white man. It is so amazed that it even lingers while I take a photo. It’s a chunky unit, but it is meagre within the scale of the whole, minor against the vast wildness of the scene. Yet here it sits entirely natural, a perfect foreground marker within the larger composition of my vista. What lies before me is Australia and I am reminded at how fortunate I am to be a part of it. Still a land of untapped discovery, of boundless space and unknown potential, it is something to cherish, to protect, and to share. And while the kangaroo is perhaps the pinnacle of the adaptive powers of evolution, as Australians we can still be much, much better than this.


[1] Clearly we only ride kangaroos around on the weekends for leisure, duh. Else the ute wouldn’t get much use.

[2] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/22/captain-rudd-australia-depths-shame for just one well-written, reasoned commentary on Australian Government approaches to ‘boat people’.

[3] Not by the team at Mythbusters I hasten to add, but by (and I quote Wikipedia) linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people.

[4] I am unsure about this at the current time of writing, with a UK heatwave and cricket team in the ascendancy.

[5] However, rising above 2000 metres it is far higher than anything in Britain, a boast many Australians like to boast about.

[6] By which I mean the whole raft of hopping marsupial type things like wallabies, wallaroos, euros, jackeroos, jillaroos, brucearoos, kangabies, roosabies, poosaloosaroos etc etc

[7] Like camping overnight, when the warm daytime temperature plummets quite dramatically and uncomfortably

Links

All you ever needed to know: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangaroo

Everyone’s favourite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRQnrY5V-rY

Walk the hill: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/390592/cnpmapredhill.pdf

Kosciuszko National Park:

http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=n0018

Hi, country: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/hi-country.html

Stop the votes: http://www.amnesty.org.au/refugees/comments/24019/

A to Z Australia Driving Photography Society & Culture Walking

Journeys

If I was Alain de Botton I would have a superbly incisive sentence about journeys with which to begin this piece. Nothing like ‘a journey is the means by which one moves from A to B, whereby A is the current position and B the intended or end position’. [1] Of course, it could become more scholarly when we propose that A equals birth and B equals death, or less so when A is North Finchley and B is Golders Green. Both can apply, for as well as being like a box of chocolates, surely life is one big journey with lots of little trips, some of them circular, others there and back again, over hills, down dales, up side streets and along back alleys. And we are all passengers on the choo-choo train of happiness that is life.

Like everyone on this planet I have been on thousands of trips within my bigger life journey, many of them unremarkable, others slightly more interesting. It would be impossible to relate them all, almost as impossible as discussing 27 trillion topics at a rate of one topic a day (over a four day working week) for one hour [2]. But I’d like, in this potentially rambling expedition of words, to give you a flavour of the mundane and the spectacular that is involved with a journey.

When I think of mundane journeys my mind instantly arrives in London and a world of commuting. I was not unique in this regard, obvious when I was to look around at the number of people squished onto one carriage of a Northern Line underground train doing the same thing. I’m not sure so many people were travelling from Finchley Central to Hanger Lane via Tottenham Court Road, but odds are there was someone else enduring this madness. It was a long trip, there and back again taking around two and a half hours out of my day. The plus sides were the opportunities to read, complete the Sudoku in Metro, and stare in the middle distance trying to avoid eye contact with anyone whatsoever (as etiquette dictates).

Often by Archway I was bored and ready to get off, to breathe the, ahem, fresh air of inner North London. I had stared at the underground map and memorised the order of stations countless times already. I knew when the very proper automated voice was about to utter something informative like ‘the next station is Tottenham Court Road, change here for the Central Line’. And, when she did, I knew where to get off so I would have the shortest route to make the connecting Central Line train, and to position myself on the platform where I would stand the highest chance of getting a seat. On this train, things livened up again after Shepherd’s Bush, where the underground would go overground and you would learn whether you had made the right choice to leave the umbrella at home today. Or not. [3]

It is a journey that sounds rather boring and often it was. But that glosses over the sheer diversity every day: different people getting stuck in the doors in a last minute dash to board (and thus not to have the indignation of waiting 2 minutes for the next train); cancellations and shutdowns due to adverse weather [4]; automated announcements enlivened by a surprisingly witty retort from a bored driver who happens not to be on strike for a change; the occasional good (or bad) fortune that you might bump into someone you might know; and the quest of listening to music before an era of noise-cancelling headphones.

In truth, the tube is anarchy masquerading as mass transit and it becomes a riot at the stations. I love the labyrinthine network of tunnels where people stride purposefully in different directions (or bumble along and get in the way when you want to stride purposefully yourself). I love the adventure of seeking some mysterious portal and having to cut through an endless flow of suits and briefcases to plunge into it and down a spiral staircase to a cavernous tunnel where an archaic train might or might not turn up. I love watching people run frantically for the train, and like it even more when they miss it. I love it when people don’t stand clear of the doors to let people off, simply because I can tut in moralistic superiority. And I love the rumble of a train approaching, and the warm or cold air it thrusts before it like in some soot-laden Dickensian wind tunnel.

It sounds like I love the underground but it’s more a rollercoaster romance. At first, the novelty of using the tube and living the big city dream makes it seem fresh and exciting. After a while, it’s more of a routine, with good and bad days. Before too long, familiarity begins to breed contempt, accentuated by something unfortunate like the Central Line being closed for track work for months on end. Sick of this, you begin to dally with others…alternatives like the admittedly dreadful amalgamation of two buses navigating the North Circular and interchanging at Brent Cross. Bizarre combinations of bus, overland train, walk, bus just to mix things up. But you end up coming back and, with a little distance and history, appreciate the marvel of the underground that still somehow manages to work today.

If we are talking about transport systems that work there is an inevitability that the word Switzerland will come up. Through the power of language I can try and take you on a journey to Switzerland, using multiple forms of transport to get to one particular high point. It actually starts in Slovenia and its capital city Ljubljana, which boasts a fine old town surrounded by the best in 60s socialist tower block architecture. View both from the castle if you can, and go on a boat trip along the river if you fancy a sedate snooze.

A hire car out of here and a circumnavigation of ring roads takes me to the airport, a place that is small but nicely formed. Airports are fun places hey. I used to quite like airports when a holiday was involved, as it was the first chapter of a vacation, a place where anticipation could bubble and good moods spread. Maybe I’m more desensitised nowadays; a touch middle class blasé about it, scarred by 5:30am flights out of foggy Canberra and transit walks at god knows what hour through Bangkok en route to London. Going off on another sidetrack, am I the only irritating global jetsetter who struggles to distinguish between Bangkok and Singapore and Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur international airports? Perhaps it’s the jetlag haze but they are all so marvellously big and white with shiny glass and sweeping curves and tropical house plants and long, long travelators peppered with pharmacies and electronics shops.

Anyway, Ljubljana International Airport is not like that. But it does have a flight that leaves fairly early for Zurich. Here begins a procession of train journeys that operate to the minute and connect with each other in perfect unison, a process that has probably been described once or twice as being like clockwork. The timings even allow sufficient chance at the station to grab a giant, salt-spotted, shiny pretzel with melted Raclette cheese oozing into its folds and crevices. And then forever I was in love with Pretzel King.

With pretzel relief, an hour or so passes quickly along the pleasant green valleys and slightly industrious-looking towns on the way to Bern, where an eight minute transfer across the platform puts me on a train heading to Interlaken. Now the hills loom higher and rocky peaks approach in the distance, while the valley alongside narrows and begins to fill with deep turquoise lakes. Interlaken sits between a couple of these lakes (hence its name [5]), and awaiting here is a smaller and older proud red train that is somehow going to find a route through the land mass that rises to the south.

It does so of course along a valley, this particular one the Lauterbrunnen Valley. But a mere crevice in the massive massifs of Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and Schilthorn, its sheer walls provide countless opportunities for waterfalls to plummet fast and furious, even in September. The only way up these is to walk along the few accessible folds, or connect across the street to a cable car, which is still part of my one way ticket from departure to destination. With each metre in ascent, the cable car provides an increasing sense of the scale of the land, as the higher valleys and mountain plateaus open up, dotted with clusters of wooden chalets, spewing with bright green fields and dark coniferous forest. And all the time, huge peaks dominate their way up into a white meringue of snow and clouds.

Atop the cable car there is somehow another single track line that has been built along a plateau, and a one carriage train awaits. It starts to seem a bit bizarre dragging my luggage on wheels as day trippers and sightseers jostle for prime window positions. Where on earth am I going? The train seems to know, and it chugs its way intermittently through forest and meadow, revealing snatches of the three mountain sentinels capped by Jungfrau now to the east, terminating where I terminate, in the small mountain village of Muerren. Finally it seems Swiss public transport can take me no further, and the sound of my luggage wheels as they negotiate the narrow roads and concrete pavements inform the whole village of my arrival.

You venture all this way, on this wonderful journey, and it comes as a little surprise to be greeted by a cheerful British woman with a well-to-do clipped accent and general air of welcoming bonhomie [6] who is to put you up in a quaint loft room, provide you wifi, and feed you ample breakfasts over the next few mornings. She also offers tips for extending this particular journey on this particular day, so remarkable that it is to end with a flourish.

There is one final train ride, this time upon a smart funicular rising up several hundred metres to Allmendhubel, primarily just a nice spot for a small pension to provide food and drinks and gaze out at the panorama. Those several hundred metres upward are handy though, saving legwork for a wonderful, looping descent back to Muerren, dipping into and out of a couple of smaller valleys, as the omnipresent peaks impose closer and closer. Out of their large shadow in the warming afternoon sun bask the grassy green valleys, dotted with wildflowers, small wooden chalets and happy cows, offering a soundtrack of cowbells essential to any Swiss idyll. As I stop and stare and have the urge to throw my arms up in wonder and sing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, I remember that a bag of bacon Frazzles has accompanied me on this journey today. Puffed up with altitude, a gift from Britain via Ljubljana, they are munched to supreme satisfaction.

J_swiss

Trains, planes, automobiles. But some of the very best journeys can only be capped off by foot…and a bag of crisps.


[1] Such insight reminds me of Sir Ian McKellen’s secret to acting as outlined to Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) in an episode of Extras. See http://www.wimp.com/goodactor/

[2] For details of such madness, see http://www.hamishandandy.com/topics/

[3] Moral of the story: NEVER leave the umbrella at home

[4] Any of: flooding rain, ice, snow, wind, too much sun, drizzle, fog

[5] Just goes to show, it’s not just the Australians who have a penchant for place names that state the bleeding obvious.

[6] The surprise not being a cheerful Brit, but just that it was a Brit.

Links

London Underground: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx

Mind the Gap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxJKvYBNgo8

Ljubljana: http://www.visitljubljana.com/

Swiss trains, the catchy multilingual SBB CFF FFS: http://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html

Muerren or Murren, it’s all the same: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/muerren.html

If you’re frazzled: http://www.britishsupermarketworldwide.com/acatalog/Smiths-Frazzles-Crispy-Bacon-Corn-Snacksx48-BOX.html

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture Walking

Home

Home is where the heart is, only pieces of my heart are scattered in so many places. The largest two chunks are undoubtedly at polar opposites of the planet, making for an interesting tug of the figurative heart strings. Like Beefy v Border and Scones v Lamingtons, it’s an Ashes battle simmering under the surface, slowly plodding away like Geoffrey Boycott completing a 962 ball century. One piece of heart is high with cholesterol, saturated with pasties and clotted cream, the other is growing all the time and falling in and out of love with a feisty sunburnt youngster.

In any discussion of academic stature it is customary to define the matter at hand and, in this case, what we mean of as ‘home’. Often this begins, rather lazily, using an Oxford English Dictionary definition which, since it comes from Oxford, probably describes home as a detached mansion encompassing at least two wings and ample space to shoot peasants. It’s true that a ‘home’ typically does involve some arrangement of bricks and mortar (or for me at the moment swag and car), but I prefer to take my lead from The Castle. An Australian cinematic classic based on a surprisingly true story, this argues the case that a home is not merely a structure but a place embodying love and shared memories, a place where prized personal treasures make it straight to the pool room.

Home is also a marker of identity, and I guess that is why so many people become indebted so that they can live in a desirable postcode, have a double garage, and possess more rooms than they could ever possibly need. The type of people in Escape to the Country who are looking for a detached period property with land for stables and a separate craft studio, six bedrooms and three reception rooms, proximity to the shops and a village pub but not next to anyone or beside any road whatsoever, with views of sheep studded fields and blue skies only. All so that one person can face a two hour commute to London and thus hardly see the house whatsoever because they have to pay off the mortgage, while the other one does a bit of art and can grow some turnips.

I’ve never really got into the whole home is my castle thing or sought to mortgage the rest of my life to pay off a bank for some bricks and mortar. I still don’t know if that’s foolhardy or not. I do occasionally have those ‘if only’ moments that come with the clarity of hindsight and sometimes wish I had made the commitment to buy something before house prices skyrocketed. But I was young and, er, foolhardy. And besides, where would I be right now if I had made such a call. In some overpriced box room flat in a zone 4 suburb of London? Or sitting in a national park in South Australia with swag ownership to boast about?

Regardless of present location there are two cities that I call home if anyone asks: Plymouth, Devon, England and Canberra, the capital city of Australia. I would say I live in Canberra and so my home is there [1], but I was born and raised in Plymouth and that is my home city. I support Plymouth Argyle but keep an eye on the ACT Brumbies and Canberra Raiders. I drift into Westcountry bumpkinism with rising Australian intonation. I think one is captivatingly beautiful while the other is beautifully captivating. Usually I feel like I belong to both, validated by dual citizenship which has me at once a British Plymothian and an Australian Canberran. At other times though it can feel like I am a stranger in both, simply because I cannot commit to one or the other. In Australia there has always been this sense of impermanence, even though I have been there for six years; with England, I am absent and afar, now looking in from the outside.

Reassuringly in spite of this Plymouth will always be home. I was born in Plymouth, in a hospital that no longer exists. I remember little of my childhood outside of Plymouth, even though we moved about a bit when I was very young. From about the time I was five we ended back in Plymouth for good, eventually being granted a council house that was supposedly in the leafy and refined sounding Beacon Park but was practically on the edge of the less salubrious sounding and indeed less salubrious Swilly. I wasn’t out of there until university, but attachments remain strong with the house, the people, the city and the area.

So, what can I tell you about Plymouth that maybe isn’t just about me and my rather uneventful upbringing? It’s a city of over a quarter of a million people, many of whom live in identikit post-war council houses that sweep up and down all of the hills that pop up across the area; hills that make walking to and from school a test of stamina, especially after an afternoon of double history following a lunchtime kick about. The city is historic, although much of this got blitzed by Germans and sadly resulted in a mostly depressing 60s concrete city centre. The Barbican houses ye olde bittes, where seadog scallywags like Drake and Hawkins planned the next places to discover and pillage. Today, the Barbican can be rather fetching on a warm day, boats bobbing on the sun glazed water, the smell of frying onions from Cap’n Jaspers floating on the breeze, and seagulls annoying the hell out of everyone, including the French exchange students looking both perplexed and bored and annoying the hell out of everyone else.

Further around from the Barbican sits Plymouth’s piece de resistance, one of the reasons it exists: Plymouth Sound. I am very likely biased but I think it is hard to come across an aspect more pleasing than that from the Hoe Promenade, a swathe of green, green grass punctuated with memorials and statues and the perfectly red and white striped lighthouse of Smeaton’s Tower. Here you can stand high above the natural harbour which pans out in front, sheltered by the hefty green shoulders of Staddon Heights to one side and the Rame Peninsula to the other. Channelling its way from the Sound, the River Tamar cuts a swathe to the west, lined with the detritus of the naval dockyard and funked up council flats, a reminder that this is a gritty city with its fair share of wonderful city things like declining industry and poverty and indifferent town planning.

H_plymouth

Softening this view, across the other side of the river, is Mount Edgecumbe and its country park, a verdant paradise of manicured gardens and dense woodland clinging to the slopes that rise up and bound forever onwards into Cornwall. I love how you can see Cornwall so easily from here, the juxtaposition from industrial cityscape to idyllic creaminess all so obvious. But it’s there, just across the water and easy to reach [2]. This is illustrative of Plymouth’s natural advantage, with the wondrousness of the Devonian and Cornish landscape just minutes away, from the rickety tors of Dartmoor, to the rolling green fields of the South Hams, across to the snug coves and fishing villages of the South Cornwall coast and up onwards to the pounding seas and plunging coastline of the north. If anyone, wrongly or rightly, ever accuses Plymouth of being a hole there is no escaping from its sublime surroundings.

So this is my home, but I haven’t really mentioned what makes it so homely. For me there is close cherished family in Plymouth and, so far away, I do miss them now and again, though I cannot quite tear myself away from another home to put that right. Like most family relationships there is something to be said for small doses and periodic visits, tending to make these more cherished and enjoyable, without breeding contempt and complacency that so often come with familiarity. Besides, when I pay visits home I get my washing done, all fresh and soft the way only Mum can get it. I doubt if I could bank on that happening if I was there all the time.

Plymouth is also homely because it is so familiar, yet this itself is a double-edged sword. I know how to get the bus into town, I somehow still recognise the face of the woman serving me milk in the corner shop, and I’m savvy enough not to be either excited or offended by someone calling me their lover or handsome. However because I am not there all the time, because I have formed attachment with another home, it also feels that sometimes I am a stranger, spurned for running off with a younger model. I don’t know what’s happening in Eastenders. I never knew that the bus company changed its name. I didn’t hear that the Prime Minister visited, looked like a total knob end and ate a pastie with some of the local chaps.

You see, that’s the price I pay for calling Canberra home as well. You can’t have your cake and eat it, can you? I never really understood that saying. I mean, I buy a cake (quite often in fact) so I have said cake. I then, usually quite quickly, eat aforementioned cake. Sometimes I have a larger cake that I eat just a morsel of, in which case I definitely have some cake in the house at the same time as eating it. Perhaps I should say a rolling stone gathers no moss instead, but is that a good or a bad thing? Okay, cool I’m a rolling stone who gathers no moss, unlike those stupid static stones with all that spongy green stuff around them. But actually are they the lucky ones, with their cosy layer of moss and security of tenure?

Pleasingly Canberra happens to have stones, and some moss, and plenty of places selling cake. I call it home primarily because I have made it so over the past six years or so. Whereas Plymouth is my home by birthright, Canberra is my home by way of where I live, at least until recently. I’m now travelling around Australia a little, but still have possessions and people of note in Canberra and when some grey nomad at a campground asks where I am from I say “Canberra”. They then look at me odd and launch into a tirade about carbon taxis and published servants or something. Nah, not really, they’re usually rather lovely or at worse aloof. Anyway, I am proud to call Canberra my home because I think it’s just a great place to live.

Canberra is rather beautiful in my eyes. I came here from London, another place I would have called home at one stage. Some people, usually Australians not in Canberra, look at me googly eyed when I tell them that. You left London and came to Canberra? Not Sydney or Melbourne, those wannabe global cities of urbane cool that aspire to be London? But it was the contrast from London that Canberra gave me and for which I fell. I could walk to work, with galahs and rosellas lining the streets as the sun hovered above. I could make new friends and acquaintances over sublime coffee (and occasionally cake). I could fall in love with the setting, its bushland hills and big glassy lake and peppering of interesting national institutions befitting a modern capital.

My favourite place here, and almost anywhere at all, is Red Hill Nature Reserve, a swathe of hilly bushland that offers a microcosm of Canberran life: mobs of kangaroos and golden grassland, multicoloured birds and majestic gum trees, a landscape dotted with runners and amblers and dog walkers and occasionally the plain curious tourist who has made it up this way. The views offer the opportunity to grasp the surroundings: a sunset over the rugged Brindabella Ranges shining golden hues over the lake and among the branches of the leafiest suburbs, stretching their way up to the fringes of other, bush clad hills and mountains. This place offers me exercise and solace, escape and invigoration, contentment and photographic opportunities. It is more than just a hill.

H_canberra

It can become very easy to be drawn in by Canberra. I intended to stay for a year and I’ve made six. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to call Canberra home, but my time there will always be a part of me. It is an easy, comfortable place, perhaps too comfortable, but go around Australia and see the gargantuan caravans being towed by monstrous 4×4 trucks driven by silver haired nomads and you’ll see that comfortable is clearly something to aspire to. And isn’t homeliness all about being in a place in which you feel comfortable?

So, comfort, familiarity, connections and at least some sense of belonging make up a home, as well as a few of those bricks and mortar to be encased in. Plymouth and Canberra both give me that. But regardless of where, I think the individual plays a huge role in making a home what it is – taking the opportunities there, seeing beauty in all its shiny sights and dirty corners, connecting with people when you can. For instance, even my swag is starting to feel homely, the way I slot my water in one corner and a book by the pillow, and the configuration of zips and hooks and pockets. Yes I guess I am a rolling stone, but I’m still picking up bits of moss along the way, moss that accumulates and forms strong and lasting attachment from birth to end. Homes.

 


[1] Or lived. Currently my postal address and electoral registration is in Canberra, but I write this from a car in South Australia!

[2] Actually, unless you get the pedestrian ferry across, this particular piece of Cornwall takes some getting to. Think river crossings, winding roads around winding creeks, single lanes hemmed in by giant hedgerows and perilous descents towards water. Like most of Cornwall then.

Links

Straight to the pool room: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM-GVRvsZrA

Britain’s Ocean City: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/

Hearty fare me hearties: http://www.capn-jaspers.co.uk/

The Janner textbook: http://www.chavtowns.co.uk/2005/02/plymouth-the-janner-textbook/

The nation’s capital: http://www.visitcanberra.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Golfing

There must be an age in the life of every male in which you suddenly find it desirable to slash a thin stick of metal at a small ball in every which direction over the rambling grounds of manicured parkland. It can happen as a nipper, inspired by fantastical feats of sporting idols. It often hits in the thirties, a way to keep active in an agreeably sedate way and escape from life’s chores, e.g. wife, children, shopping, shopping with the wife and children. And then of course, it goes hand in hand with retirement, like a golden handshake of expensive Big Berthas and disastrous Pringle pullovers.

I quite like the appeal of golf right now, being in my mid thirties with a penchant for early retirement. It’s something that has been around since my teens when, like many teens, I was more active with a naive hopefulness that I may one day be the next champion striding the fairways with a fluorescent green cap and stripy pants. This activity tailed off at university and never really resurrected itself, with only sporadic bursts of wanton destruction around eighteen holes since. But I still have clubs, lots of balls and one of those Michael Jackson type gloves with grubby marks buried away at the bottom of a comedy sized golf bag.

I think I was introduced to the world of golf by my brother, as often happens when one has an older brother. Initially this was via Golfer’s Delight or some other weekly supplement that you collect the parts for and put into one big binder over 684 weeks. You know, the things usually advertised after Christmas like Diesel Tanks and Artillery Transport of Europe and Super Crotchet Life. Anyway, as well as profiles of top golfers and top courses it had tips on how to be a great swinger and expertly control your balls [1].

Other media increased exposure to golf. On the TV there was of course the joy of hearing Peter Alliss rambling on and on about old Bertie Wallopsworth of Surrey Heath Golf Club having his 120th birthday Texas Scramble [2], while somewhere in the background a golf tournament was taking place. Then there was the thrill of getting Sky Sports hooked up in some dodgy arrangement and watching the US tour on a Sunday evening, full of whoops and hollers, fluoro greens and sour old hacks commenting on the state of young people today. It often also included as accompaniment a whole bag of cheap peanuts from the corner shop and / or a genuinely king-sized Mars Bar. Then, when print and TV couldn’t fulfil this exposure there were even computer games – memories of Links 386 where a computerised ‘you’re the man’ or ‘too much club’ was a marker of progress; and some Jack Nicklaus golf course design game with the world’s most disturbing theme music.

G_golf1In the real world my first set (or mini set) of golf clubs came from Argos [3]. This allowed me, post birthday, to escape to Central Park in the long summer evenings to probably annoy my brother and his new found golfing friends, one of whom I’m sure was shaping up to be a first rate psychopath in the quality of his hissy fits and club throwing. Avoiding the ageing course attendant with his black teeth and ever-present eau de cigar, we would sneak on the course, make up our own holes by combining bits of one with the other and generally play until you couldn’t see the drug pushers hanging around the toilets anymore. It was not the fantasy plastic world of golf thrust upon me from the television [4].

Upgrades came when I got to play on a proper grown up course, with proper clubs and something called etiquette, which as far as I could tell generally meant wearing your school trousers and tucking a collared shirt into them. Perched on the southern edge of Dartmoor and more often than not sitting in the clouds, Wrangaton was a sleeping beast of a course, with sheep and rock for fairways and gorse for rough. The wind often howled, meaning while one hole could be reached with a gentle tap of the ball, another took seven days and a team of Sherpa’s to conquer. It had, in between the bogs and bracken, some stupendous views over Devon, lain out below the ninth tee in a typically creamy pattern of green hills and vales.

At the other end of the country, Scotland is reputedly the home of golf, I assume because only such a sport could be devised over several long hard nights of Glenfiddich. My own golfing development continued with a few summer holidays north across the border with my brother and Dad. This included one or two trips to watch The Open Championship, followed by some very unsuccessful attempts to emulate the professionals via ScotGolf , a competition of my brother’s devising which was devised in such a way to make my brother end up the winner every time! To be fair, he was the most accomplished golfer, clearly from his time collecting and scrutinising Golfer’s Delight or whatever it was. And it wasn’t all playing with balls and holes. There were uncharacteristically scorching days to bake on the fine sandy beaches of Ayrshire and swelter on the peaks of Arran. There were tourist days to potter about loveable Edinburgh and eat cakes of great upstanding from Fisher and Donaldson in St Andrews. And there were winding scenic drives to make my brother feel travelsick and Dad and I to feel payback for the drubbing we got in ScotGolf.

Now if I was a golfer of some note I would be able to regale and bore you with tales of my best rounds of golf, finest shots and superb holes. In truth I cannot remember so much of distinction, especially in those younger years. I do recall holing a putt approximately the length of the Great Wall of China on another uncharacteristically scorching day in Edinburgh. On the same trip I remember spraying my ball right, over some bushes and, unbeknown to me, onto the next tee where a couple of old wee lassies were hitting off. I very nearly ended up sending one of those old dears to the fairways in the sky, saved only by the rim of her vivid pink visor deflecting the ball. Back in Devon I also remember hitting a sheep on the arse at Wrangaton and pretty much doing the same on some heifer dawdling at Central Park pitch and putt. As I say, I was not a golfer of some note.

G_golf2

As I have matured and my game has got even more sporadic I like to think I am less bothered about how well I play, content to be outdoors and enjoying the surroundings in the company of others [5]. I have come to realise that, on the whole, golf courses are rather beautiful things. Indeed, it is rare that you get so many acres lovingly dedicated to different types of grass and trees, shrubs and undergrowth, ponds and brooks. And they can be wild and rugged spots, your individual journey plotted purely by how wayward you hit the ball, typically finding untamed jungle with every slice and secret fairy dells with every hook. Plus, when you finally get there, the greens have those stripy patterns that every lawn yearns for, and there are even bits of beach to build sandcastles in, though I’m not sure this is in the Old Thomas Botheringirls-Willynilly handbook of golfing etiquette and manners.

In Australia I have been lucky enough to hit a little ball around a few such charming spots. In the lee of Red Hill, Federal Golf Club is truly archetypal with its graceful white gum trees and kangaroos lining the fairways. Such is the proliferation of native flora and fauna that it is not uncommon to be stared down by a mob of twenty to thirty eastern greys that have set up camp between your ball and the green. It really makes you focus on hitting the next shot in the air. On the positive side, I do have the local wildlife to thank for assistance on one occasion – petulant cockatoos ripping up the greens and nudging my ball just a little closer to the hole for a pleasing par putt.

Red Hill

Elsewhere, down on the NSW coast at Narooma I have had the thrill of playing over the sea and along the very rim of towering cliffs as a whale and its calf splash around a little out to sea. It’s that kind of memory, and a few half-decent shots mixed in with it, that draw me back to wistfully ponder that I should be doing this more often. When you are wistful and ponderous you tend to forget the rubbish, such as horizontal rain and five putt greens, uncomfortable trousers and cap hair, as well as the price you pay for the privilege. Instead you think about the regular exercise, time in the outdoors with nature, a good walk bettered with the focus of getting a little ball into an equally little hole on a not very little stretch of land; and you begin to think that you may just be following your brother to the greens not for the first time in your life.


[1] I’m sorry. Golf is like that isn’t it? You cannot write about swinging and balls and holes and wood and birdies without falling into smutty innuendo.

[2] And that doesn’t involve one old man and six curvy Texan cowgirls.

[3] Good old Argos, I really do miss its omnipresent usefulness.

[4] An early valuable lesson to never trust television. Yes, even Eastenders is make-believe.

[5] That is not to say I will play a round of golf without swearing less than 50 times.

Golfing Links (haha)

What a king sized Mars Bar used to look like: http://imghumour.com/categories/trucks/view/definitely-a-king-size-mars-bar

Pitch and putt and throw clubs in a huff: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/things-to-do/pitch-and-putt-central-park-p1417363

Wrangaton Golf Club: http://www.wrangatongolfclub.co.uk/pages.php/index.html

Och aye yum: http://www.fisheranddonaldson.com/Site/Welcome.html

Federal Golf Club: http://www.fgc.com.au/welcome/index.mhtml

Narooma Golf Club: http://www.naroomagolf.com.au/

A to Z Australia Europe Society & Culture Uncategorized USA & Canada

Fairytales

Once upon a time there lived a curious fellow with salt and pepper hair and ten year old T-shirts that had faded in the sun but, he thought, had not quite worn enough to really justify throwing away. He was somewhat transient in nature, rarely settling in one place for too long, and got a little restless when forced to stay on one spot, like a golden retriever longing to chase a stick thrown just over the horizon. This state was not helped by a chronic inability to make long term plans or grown up decisions. Rather than seeing this as a failing however, he decided to positively embrace it by going on little trips and adventures to take in new worlds and experiences, and to document it in his own haphazard way.

It would be fair to say that he had a tendency to be cynical and sceptical about things as he went around. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or yellow brick road taking you there. Fairytales were the realm of fantasy, moralistic feel good stories that had been endlessly rehashed for commercial TV and cinema. Actually, he did have a certain fondness towards Beauty and the Geek, not that he would admit this of course. He liked the Beauty’s naive charm and hot legs, and perhaps envied the Geek for a short moment. Plus Shrek was okay, up to a point.

So it was with wide-eyed amazement that on one of his little escapades he found himself in some kind of fairytale world. The day hadn’t really started that way, as he lugged his bags on the number 82 bus from Finchley to Golders Green, and hopped aboard a coach to take him to an airport in Essex of all places. The coach did have free wifi and the airport a good deal on soup and a sandwich, but this was hardly up there in the land of fairytales. The plane too – sturdy, reliable, no fuss – was agreeable enough, and the flight offered views of mountainous realms and lakeside charms. And it was somewhere amongst these mountains that the plane touched down, and the new land of Slovenia awaited him.

He was welcomed with a hire car and a motorway, not quite a yellow brick road, but proficient enough to carry him hastily to this fairytale world; a world where a lake of turquoise and opal and jade blended into one glassy whole, and from which rose a tear shaped island, decorated with a single church tower; a tower whose bell echoed across the water and permeated the leafy forest shore, no doubt prompting a few tired leaves to float to the ground as each wave of sound shuddered against the branches. On the water, row boats sliced silkily through its calm, each carrying a Prince Charming and their Princess, or a gaggle of ugly sisters, towards the island. High above perched atop a rocky crag a castle brooded, keeping watch on the lake and island, and resisting the weight of mountains behind it.

Lake Bled

Lake Bled was to be his home for a couple of nights and he lived his own fairytale in his own happy way. He filled up on breakfast beside the windowsill, overlooking the world as it came to life and humans began to entangle themselves with the landscape. He walked the perimeter of the lake on a cloudy, drizzly morning, even more captivated by the sombre cloak the elements had thrown over the land, and the solace of that bell on that church tower on that island. He had a coffee beside its shore and was pleased of the quality and friendliness with which it was provided, for very little pleased him more. Later on some local sausages and wine, plus a quest to find Bled Cake, satisfied him still further.

F_VintgarThe fairytale landscape appeared to spread beyond the lakeside and, despite the inevitable persistence that comes with drizzle, he became captivated by a seemingly timeless and hidden gorge, carved out many eons before. The green waters of Vintgar Gorge had a mystical property, as the river sliced its way through, around, and under rock while tree roots and branches clung precariously to the narrowing and steepening sides of the valley. An ancient wooden walkway hovered above the river, as hundreds of trout waited for something, or someone, to fall in. Around the next corner there probably lurked a dragon, while hidden above the cliff a fair maiden waited, longingly hoping for a handsome man to pull on her matted locks of golden hair.

The following day it was time for him to put on another clean but old T-shirt and leave this fairytale enclave and move further across the realm. This was none the less enchanting, from snow kissed mountains to tumbling icy blue rivers, passing by the clusters of old cities and towns with their ornate facades and steeple fringed skylines. And then rather circuitously down to another lake, Bohinj, which presented a more pastoral scene of Heidi milking cows while Julie Andrews and some kids wailed from the peaks above.

Here, among the narrow streets of a village peppered with wooden chalets also lay a sense of darker, gothic folk tales embossed in the burnished beams. Like the story of a curious fellow climbing a mountain, persisting upwards through rough hunting trails and never giving up, never turning back. And for this effort, encountering just a sparse plateau inhabited by rabid dogs and crooked nose peasants, while back in the valley sat a welcoming, sunny village with flowery meadows and bales of hay. The moral of this tale: what you find around you at the bottom of the mountain can be better than that which sits at the top. And, always stick to well marked and mapped out trails.

A good fairytale is nothing without a happy ending and for this the man returned to the magical surroundings of Lake Bled, unable to resist its allure, despite his prior dislike of fairytales. After the frustrating climb of the previous day he wanted to use his efforts more productively and reach a pinnacle, a place from which he could look down on the land like a giant upon a beanstalk. It was a good job he was wearing another old T-shirt for it was a steep and sweaty climb in the late afternoon sunshine. However, upon reaching the first point at which he could cast his eye below, the sun had disappeared behind a mountain, or had possibly been put in shadow by the billionaire owner of a nuclear power plant, and the scene was dull and flat. But by time he reached the very top of Osojnica viewpoint, the sun emerged again and all was illuminated below. Persistence and patience pays off.

F_Bled2

The church on the lake was still there, with rowboats milling about and the bell ringing out to all around. The castle looked less broody and imposing, as it sat below his vantage, and was dwarfed by the rise of mountains behind it. The lake took on deeper blue hues from where he stood, projecting a sheen like candle wax. And the sun remained for just a few more minutes as he documented the experience in his own haphazard way.

While it is still too early to tell whether he lived happily ever after, the fellow had again a deep appreciation for his circumstances and the opportunities that came his way. Thankfully he didn’t quite lose his cynicism, for that was an essential part of his character, but he did appreciate that fairytales of a sort were happening all the time. They may not be the fantasy stories of dashing princes who looked a bit gay and demure princesses who were secretly hot; or yarns about ogres and dragons and talking donkeys. But he did see that there was wondrousness all around, on this real land in places both near and far, far away. The world is our fairytale and we make our own stories in it. And he continued to make his story every day, always trying to admire and appreciate the land around him as he did so.

Links

Bled tourist information: http://www.bled.si/en/

Live in a fairytale on a budget at Pension Pletna: http://www.pletna.com/en

Vintgar Gorge: http://www.bled.si/en/default.asp?id=466

Bohinj tourist information: http://www.bohinj.si/en

Not so sleeping beauties or shrinking violets: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/beauty-and-the-geek-australia/

I’m a believer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUyu5prWjTE

A to Z Europe Food & Drink Photography Society & Culture Walking

Beery

As an Anglo-Australian male in his thirties it is inevitable that beer has accompanied me on many occasions on the road and at home. At such times when one needs to know, like a doctor’s interrogation or unethically intrusive job interview, I’d declare myself one of these ‘social drinker’ types. From what I can tell, a social drinker is someone who grabs a beer or two when the mood fancies – to celebrate, relax, or navigate slightly awkward moments – or just when it’s the only thing cold in the fridge and you just can’t be arsed to scrape ice out of the freezer. Very occasionally the charming delight that you become after such social drinking turns sour (usually thanks to the beer being ‘off’ or some such), and imbalance and language difficulties can ensue.

The sage philosopher, Homer [1], remarked of beer as a “temporary solution,” in easing the challenging realities of existence. This temporary solution is also uncannily permanent around the world in which we travel, providing a readily available, relatively cheap source of comfort and joy. Though naturally something of a haze, I can look back on my life and recall a number of places and experiences that have been enhanced by beer or, broadening the spectrum a little, a good glass of wine or a tangy local cider or a holiday water style G&T. Often the drink is the icing on the cake, the encapsulation of a special moment. At other times it’s invariably been an antiseptic, painkiller or narcotic.

 B_beer montage

A proven value of beer when travelling is in how it can transform the first shy mumblings of disparate individuals on a tour group into one animated tribe. While the first day of such trips may have been spent quietly on the bus in little cliques of friendship pairs, the second day is typically dominated by shared tales of what scandal befell Jared and Janelle, and frequent hilarious stops for Lance to chunder like the man he is from down under. Meanwhile the tour guide acts like this has never happened before and this group is – based on the escapades of the previous night – simply the most awesome ever [2]. Multiply this all by several days and nights and you are left with a teary, hollow feeling that you will never be as one again when the trip is over and that Lance’s chunder is now but a trickle down some distant highway. This may sound like a young persons’ rite of passage, but I daresay the same happens on more senior and old at heart tours, just replace ‘beer’ with ‘wine’ and ‘chunder’ with ‘incontinence’.

Unless you happen to spend a large part of your time meandering in the Middle East, beer is an international language, demonstrated by the fact that almost every country has its own version. Within countries, different regions produce their own local brew and it can be a strong marker of local identity. Obviously one of the joys of travel is sampling local food and drink and I’ll always look to a local beer if I can, unless I have already discovered its similarity to the secretion of a small flying insect, or “gnat’s piss” as it is sometimes described. The trick for the traveller is to know the local beer sensitivities, so as not to order some nancy fruity lager with low carbohydrates in the North East of England or the culturally offensive XXXX from Queensland in anywhere but Queensland [3].

Moving from England to Australia in 2006 I have gradually come to learn the sensitivities of what must be two of the most rampant beer swilling nations. My biggest faux pas was when fresh off the boat and still subject to irritants like Shane Warne. Tasked with getting some beers in for Friday work drinks I grabbed a crate of stubbies from the local Bottle-O [4] only to be chided for their warmth. The stubbies felt pretty cold but that was in fact ambient air-conditioning temperature and not arctic freezer temperature, which was how the locals preferred it. And now, after six years or so, that’s how I like it, perhaps because it’s the only way to subvert the lack of taste.

Beer has been part of my cultural integration and a means to become accepted as a bona fide Australian. A barbecue with awful slimy sausages does not feel right without a beer in hand, cloaked in a tacky stubby holder. Mercifully, even those who were subject to my warm stubbies have become good friends, and I have since shared drinks with them fresh out of the chillers of a 7-11 in Hong Kong, wandering party streets with beer in hand, inevitable ending up in Maccers at night’s end. This was one of those experiences where the beer must have been ‘off’, since a malaise lingered for the rest of my stay there.

Australian beer consumption seems natural in the outdoors, huddled around a barbecue, the droning of cricket commentators in the background. It’s also a good accompaniment beside the sea, tasting even better after an active day of exploring and coasting. One such memory stands out when I was in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. Here, after a blissful drive south from Perth, the day’s end saw me at Prevelly, a low key settlement on the coast, popular for surfing or just hanging out like a surfer. The headland here is actually called Surfer’s Point, and this particular evening it was jam packed with people of a dreadlocked and slightly skanky looking nature, plus their groupies. Inexplicably, many were clambering over the rocks with what looked like ironing boards to bob up and down in the water at prime shark feeding time. Others were returning from the water, getting changed with very little discretion around their beat up vans. There wasn’t just the one full moon that night.

Positioned the other side of the headland was another cove where the Margaret River itself came to a halt against the sand. With a sandy beach, sun disappearing over the ocean, full moon rising over the river, ambient temperature and vibe and one beer lugged several kilometres in the pocket of my shorts, the scene was set. Twisting the bottle top of my beer and nirvana was within sight. Apart from the fact that the bottle top wouldn’t twist off. It was one of those fancy boutique beers requiring a bottle opener. I could have cried.

In such circumstances one finds oneself thinking what Bear Grylls would do? But given I neither had a film crew nor nearby hotel in which I was actually staying, I was forced to reassess and consider what would MacGyver do? The answer lay in the use of keys, a wooden stick from an ice lolly, a bit of rock and willpower. After ten minutes it finally opened, the first gassy hiss like the sound of 80,000 fans at the MCG cheering. It was now slightly warm but I obviously didn’t mind and the beer went down like the sun and the mood climbed like the moon.

B_marg2 B_marg1

While offering spectacular outdoor beer moments like this, Australia has generally disappointed in its indoor drinking environment. Pubs are often bland behemoths with tacky decor and goddam awful pokies, an attached bistro offering an array of equally dull and not as cheap as it should be food. As a result, I love returning to the UK to duck into any one of its dark and dingy drinking holes and remember an archetypal rainy day in London a few years back where, killing time before meeting friends, the only answer was to pop into a random hostelry, drink a couple of warming ales and write postcards. Perversely, pubs in the UK tend to have better beer gardens too, perhaps a result of the local obsession with hanging baskets and, well, opportunities to drink away the misery on every street corner.

An English speciality is the country pub, often offering a roaring fireside, wooden tables and outdoor hanging baskets. Beers range from generic chemical concoctions to the occasional guest ale brewed in the local cowshed. It’ll be called something like Olde Spotted Dick or Malted Slipperypipe. To soak it up you can sample a menu ranging from cheesy garlic bread to cheesy lasagne to cheesy chips and perhaps even cheesy peas [5]. There will be an aroma of stale beer mixed with cow dung. And you’ll generally be made to feel welcome because everyone in there has been inebriated since 1972 and cannot be bothered anymore.

One very lovely country pub moment that I remember was in the equally lovely Lake District in northwest England. For a country as small and crammed as England it is remarkable how much of it has an alluring pastoral air and sense of light and space. In this regard, the Lake District is an absolute gem. On a surprisingly sunny and warm late summer’s day, with the farmers making hay and the sheep bleating contentedly, a small pub along the country lanes of Langdale offered up not a beer but a beautifully of-the-moment cider. Despite repeated attempts, that first cider on that first night could not be beaten. It was the official start of the holiday, the ‘we have arrived’ moment and perfectly set up a week of discovery and delight.

B_lakes

Would such moments have been the same without alcohol? One would like to think so, purely to reassure oneself that they are not dependent on booze. But in reality I don’t think a glass of lemonade would have cut it. Good beers (and ciders) emerge at the end of good days; they are both rewards and tonics. They can lift a moment from average to good, good to exceptional. And they trigger associated memories of time and place. They are the beer goggles that help us to look back on moments with a rose-tinted air. Sure, let us not overdo it, but let us also not dismiss beer as just another vice. Remember kids, drink responsibly, and if you can’t, best to head off on a Contiki tour with Lance.


[1] J Simpson, not the ancient Greek dude

[2] To argue against this point, see https://gbpilgrim.com/2012/12/15/a/

[3] With the wonders of marketing however it is very acceptable to have the ‘Australian’ Fosters in England, but do not drink it (if you even find it) in Australia!

[4] Translated, for those of you who speak English, as ‘I purchased a 24 pack of beer bottles from the beer shop / off licence / liquor store’

A to Z Australia Food & Drink Great Britain Society & Culture

Awesome!

Well what a jolly upbeat place to start, no doubt setting the scene for the boundless enthusiasm that lies ahead. So, in order to put an immediate dampener on things, let me tell you some problems with this word and its application in the world of travel.  For far too long, far too many people, myself included, have liberally used a simple ‘awesome’ to reflect or describe an experience which, while probably very good, perhaps exhilarating, maybe fun depending on company, was technically not inspiring of our awe. Akin to Australian misogynists trolling their way through the hate media in 2012, overuse has diluted its impact. Awesome is no longer quite as awesome.

And who should we blame for such degradation of our language? Well, as every reasoned, fact-based opinion piece would purport, young people and social media of course! I suppose while we are thinking along such lines then we might also point the finger at any combination of immigrants, foreigners, boatpeople, sandpeople, wookies, orcs and trolls. Bloggers, who may fit in any or all of the above categories, are no doubt entirely culpable.

Of course, this is all assuming that we have to blame someone or something, which tends to be the way these days, rather than accept that things change for better or worse and that language is merely an extension of our natural evolution. Besides, I also think we could rule out young people in the blame game, simply because “awesome” sounds so 1990s. A bit like “cool’. Which naturally brings me on to New Zealand.

Nowhere, simply nowhere, have I heard the word “awesome” used to describe so many mundane things…

How were your fish and chips? Awesome, thanks. Cool [1]

How did you sleep last night? Not bad thanks. Awesome

What do you think of the Hobbit movie? Yeah absolutely awesome Peter Jacksons a legend bro

It may be because New Zealanders – who I truly believe are one of the nicest, warmest peoples on this planet – are naturally happy and optimistic souls (the counterargument, typically from boorish Aussies, would be that they are easily pleased). The irony of this is that New Zealand probably contains the most genuinely awesome sights and experiences per capita of anywhere in the world. Yes, experiencing a silent, dawn reflection on the glass water of Milford Sound probably is awesome; the extent to which your lamb chop is seasoned really shouldn’t be.

I am willing to cede that awesomeness is entirely subjective. Perhaps, indeed, a well seasoned lamb chop (which is important) could be awesome when one finds oneself ravenously craving salty meatiness. Thus in travel we will all come across different things that we find awesome. Not just incredible sights but experiences and emotions that pop up in the right place at the right time. The combination of physical place and emotional connection is often the most magical. One can trigger the other. For me, a physicality that is almost impossible to fathom and epic in scale is usually awesome [2]. It is something that is rightly awe-inspiring and as such generates an emotional reaction. Emotions ranging from bewilderment to wonderment. A sense of one’s own time and place in a grander narrative.

Awesome travel experiences should be impossible to fully convey through words and pictures. Which, with a sense of inevitability, I shall now attempt to do, reflecting on two very different environments. One is man-made, the other crafted by the hand of nature.

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A_New York

When it comes to epic environments of a man-made scale I’d argue it would be hard to look beyond New York City and the landscape of Manhattan Island in particular. Everyone should visit and everyone should easily find an awesome moment. There is incredulity attached to the place, simply in how a muddy island has evolved over little more than two centuries to become, and I plagiarise, one hell of a town. A testament to human survival, endeavour, ingenuity and skill. A reflection too on human frailty, failings and fears. This may be how far we, as humanity, have come, both in good and bad ways.

Even from atop the very highest buildings the city is impossible to fathom (remember this being a key requisite of my definition of awesomeness). At my time of visit (2011), the Empire State Building represented the highest point in the city and the experience from the 86th floor around dusk was incredible. Each city block a melding of concrete, steel and glass, bubbling upwards like the most majestic capitalist stalagmites. Each block ringed by a dotted artwork of moving yellow taxis, police cars, black and white suits, turning to streams of candescent red and yellow as darkness falls. This scene replicated and nuanced many times over, forming a feast for the eyes of gargantuan proportions.

There is more to this experience than the visual epic. The sound is at one singular and plural; a constant background hum punctuated by sirens wailing, drills whirring, concrete blocks piling, delivery vans unloading. For all I can make out, the mutterings of individual conversations and transactions rise up – “Get me a bagel schmuck”, “Siphon residual profits into offshore hedge fund now”, “Aw gee, that’s so awesome” – and meld together to form an indistinct, indecipherable story. Yet it is also a soundtrack that is – comparative to the streets below – soft and mellow, calming and reassuring, like a doctor with a good bedside manner, telling you it’s only a cold and will go away in a couple of days.

Without wishing to sound entirely blasphemous or indeed egotistical, it is possibly the closest you can physically feel to playing God. Here I am, overlooking the chaotic order the ant like humans have made. They seem to have done pretty well, but I’m not quite so sure where they are heading with all of this. Still, if it mostly keeps them out of trouble then I’ll let them get on with it, for now. I do wonder if their structures and movements and lights flickering on as darkness approaches are a brazen act of defiance to the nature I have created. But I’ll just make sure the sun goes down and comes up again, throw in some random weather and inevitable seasons. And let them see what they can do about that – ha!

I think it’s this realisation that you are both atop a pinnacle of human endeavour yet still at the mercy of the world around you that makes the top of the Empire State Building genuinely awesome. Coming at dusk accentuates this feeling, the changing colours reminding you that not even humankind can change the revolution of our planet and relationship to other bodies within the solar system (yet!). Despite what we have achieved, parading in such an obvious fashion below you, we cannot completely change the world. And that is a merciful thought. It adds to the relief at being so high, up away from the city, taking a breather from the millions below, yet remaining connected to them. And, gee, it’s a tonic for a great view.

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A_bluemtns

Great views abound in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia. Before I go any further here I should reiterate the guide book lines: they are not actually mountains and they are not really blue, unless Bernard Manning has been resurrected in the wattle to yell out random profanities. Don’t expect high alpine drama of ragged granite shards and snow-capped peaks here. And, despite its very real wilderness, don’t be thinking you’ll be entirely escaping the clutches of mankind, given the most common way to see the place is along the not-so-Great Western Highway, with typically nondescript towns and Sydney style traffic. However, what is really awesome is the fact that you can walk down the streets of several of these towns and come to a rather abrupt halt. Or you could, should you really want to, carry on and topple many hundreds of metres down to join millions of Eucalyptus trees sweeping their way through valleys, tucking up like broccoli textured blankets against sheer sandstone cliffs, sheltering crazy birds and possums and snakes and spiders. A world before we were here.

Even though it may seem about as far away from New York City as the former planet Pluto, there are parallels between the two, conveniently suggesting common threads exist in my take on awesomeness. Sandstone pinnacles thrust upwards like the Empire State Building. Down below, a tree-filled pattern of regular irregularity. Sounds drift up, only, this time, the sirens are the echoes of bellbirds and the cackles of kookaburras and cockatoos. You are once more God-like, and with a sense of befuddlement at the sheer comprehension of what is set out below.

Out there remains wilderness, all still remarkably close to a sprawling city of over four million people. The ‘mountains’ remain an effective barrier to the seemingly endless sprawl, with shoots of Sydney forced south and north to new suburbs promising ample land and countryside but without really being in Sydney at all. The suburbs are unwittingly following the route of a few cows that escaped around 200 years earlier in search of pasture; cows that eventually found their way around the mountains, unlike the intrepid explorers who thought they could just head west in a straight line, endlessly naming everything that got in their way after themselves. Can we deduce that cows are smarter than many 18th century British colonial dandies? Surely not.

From the small towns that emerged once the explorers had stumbled across the mountains (only with the essential assistance of the local Aborigines) there are many vantage points to peer out into the void of the Grose Valley (to the north) and Jamison Valley (to the south) [3]. Some of these lookouts are grand, glamorous affairs, with safety rails and public toilets, information placards and tame rosellas. Echo Point in Katoomba is the most obvious yet still it offers a dramatically photogenic vista. You may find it awesome.

For the record, I find Sublime Point, further along to the east offers greater potential for an awesome experience. It’s harder to reach and thus you are more likely to experience it on your own, just you and the world for company. You are especially likely to have it to yourself at 6am in June, the wind piercing the bones and shaping bleary-eyed hallucinations of the valley mist into a soft, warming duvet. It is elemental, timeless and boundless. And as the first laser beams of sun hit the sandstone and the birdsong strikes upwards from within the mist, it is sublime, it is awesome.


[1] Everything that is awesome is also cool. Some things that are cool may not be awesome.

[2] Perhaps “epic” is in fact the modern day “awesome”, particularly since it requires fewer characters in a tweet.

[3] Further west there is the Megalong Valley, since tamed and given over to farming shortly after someone came up with its inspired choice of name.

Links

Speak like a New Zealander: http://www.statravel.com.au/new-zealand-language.htm

The Empire State Building: http://www.esbnyc.com/

Me and NYC: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/spreading-news.html

Bernard John Manning: http://www.bernardmanning.com/

Destination NSW – Blue Mountains: http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/blue-mountains?gclid=CMzA4_uUmbQCFcohpQodCiYA-g

Crossing the Mountains: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/exploration/blue_mountains/index.html

Sublime times: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/sublime-points.html

A to Z Australia Photography Society & Culture USA & Canada