Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Newcastle (NSW) - February 2008

The bus trip to Christchurch was long and tedious, leavened only by the kid throwing up next to me. At least she didn't throw up on me.The flight to Melbourne was, once again, ridiculously early - I had the taxi pick me up at 04:15. Hardly worth paying the hotel for the use of the room, once I'd wandered about to find dinner (Greek) and had a drink.

It was a fleeting visit to Melbourne: three hours later, I was boarding my $10 Tiger Air flight to Newcastle. It is an impressive city to fly into, what with the coastline north of Sydney (quite what we were doing out there, I have no clue), the rivers curving their way around Newcastle, its port and the way that Downtown Newcastle is on a narrow peninsular. To add to the general effect were the numerous areas of shallow flood and the general greenness of the place.(OMG, as I'm typing this, I'm playing something from the second record I ever bought, which I haven't heard for ages, not since my Radio Woodville days - I found The Best of the Motels on CD today, and "Total Control" is still doing it for me). Newcastle itself was not quite what I expected: yes, it had some great old buildings, some had been done up nicely but in between, there were lots of empty buildings, and lots of new buildings, which were not a patch on their older cousins. The main street has been turned into a Mall - I walked down it a number of times, at various times of the day, and it strikes me as a cold and forbidding place.

But overall, I liked my time in Newcastle. I got organised and went down to the Hawkesbury River by train, a place that has been in my imagination ever since
The Oyster Farmer and The Secret River. Of course, trains are not the ideal mode of transport when it comes to rivers, so I only got to see a very small part of it. I went on a day long wine tour out in the lower Hunter Valley, which mysteriously turned into a beer tour when I noticed a micro-brewery. Since there were only three of us on the tour and we all enjoyed beer more than wine, the driver could be accommodating. It was a good day out, a good use of a wet day which might otherwise have confined me to the hostel.

Not that I would have minded terribly, as it is a very nice hostel - the common area, with its pool table and leather club chairs, makes me think it might have been a gentleman's club in its earlier life. I did some shopping, I explored the Newcastle library and art gallery, I found some good places to eat and drink coffee (on Darby Street), I read (Narayan), I saw some movies (I'm Not There and The Jane Austen Book Club) and I went to Maitland.

Maitland is more in line with my expectations of Newcastle - it has a "heritage" mall, lots of gracious old buildings and a general good feel to the place. I could have easily made this my base, had I not discovered it the day before I returned to Melbourne.
So I had a very nice Thai meal and caught the train back to Newcastle, then Tigered it back to Melbourne. There I just hung about for a few days, exploring a few more nooks and crannies, enjoying the place, staying at the North Melbourne YHA.

This trip has been marked by more interesting encounters with other people than is normally the case. First was the kid who didn't quite throw up on me. Then there was the couple in Newcastle airport (who had also found $10 fares so flew up just for the night): they gave me and another lost soul (the next bus was 90 minutes later) a ride into town.

In Maitland, I was walking past a pub, with its attendant group of smokers loitering outside, and heard what I am sure was a conversation about rats. One of the people said "there goes one now"; I had the uncomfortable sensation she was talking about me. I carry on walking, and then there's someone running after me - I look round in a fairly terrified fashion, and its some girl going "Happy Valentine", as she hands me a crumpled flower and a fag. When I say I don't smoke, she says "give it to someone you love" and is off, back to her group. Maybe they weren't talking about rats.

Then on a tram in Melbourne, there's this young guy, no shirt, fairly wasted, who gives me a big hug, quite prolonged really, all because I passed him his bag. But above all is Naomi: she came on the wine tour, so I had pretty much the whole day with her and her Welsh friend. Neither made much of an impression when they first got on the bus, but we'd stop and taste some wine and chat; then I found myself sureptitously looking at her as we drove and, despite knowing I'd never see her again, getting rather enchanted by her as the day progressed .

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Old Men in Love: John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers

by Alasdair Gray (2007). I bought what is probably Gray's best known novel, Lanark, quite some time ago as the result of considerable chatter around the place. I have yet to read it, however, but when I spotted his latest book, Old Men in Love, on the library shelf I had to pick it up. I'm glad that I have been reading Pope and Swift for my studies this year and read Flann O'Brien a couple of years ago, because this book is very much in their tradition. Indeed, the book has the famous quote from O'Brien's Ar Swim Two Birds about good books needing "three openings entirely dissimilar and interrelated only in the prescience of the author". It also has blurbs from Lawrence Sterne, Samuel Johnson and Sidney Workman ("This book should not be read"). The first two are, of course, fictional but the third has an extra layer of fiction in that Workman is a character from within the pages of Gray's work.

As was common with these authors, the book has a somewhat elaborate cover page

although by no means as elaborate as, say, Swift might have employed. It is a layered text - it is ostensibly the papers of one John Tunnock. He was something of a scholar, attempting to write a history of the world. At the same time, he was recording his own life in a diary. After his death, the job was given to one Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar, his next of kin, to wind up his estate. She sells of all his material assets but still had his papers to "embarrass" her:
I had a mass of typescript and a large desktop notebook two-thirds full of undated entries in tiny, clear, almost sinisterly childish calligraphy. It would have been heartless to discard all that as waste paper, but what else could I do? The typed pages were historical novels, which I detest. I also dislike reading diaries, even those written for publication, and a sample of John's miserable confessions made me think them unpublishable - I now know this idea is old-fashioned and out of date.
As it happened, one Alistair Gray was available to help her do the impossible: this book is the result of his exertions on her behalf. She has written an introduction ("because his [own] reputation as an occasional writer of fiction often led critics to doubt the value of his serious work") and he has provided the reader with a number of marginal notes
(not footnotes or endnotes because "I like widening my readers' range of expectations") and a table of contents. There are a number of illustrations, all apparently hand drawn by Gray himself and rather exquisite in their detail
The introduction raises several questions about Tunnock's mode of living (including whether he ever had sex - he lived with his maiden aunts until they died, just a decade ago) and how he came to die: his diary entries serve to answer those questions and to reveal him as a rather odd man. Here is how it starts:
The time is now three in the morning after the most bemusing hours of my life. They started yesterday when I arose and as usual on days when cleaners come, had to start by tidying away signs of female presence scattered over my floors from living room to lavatory: discarded garments, cosmetic tools, photographic magazines about the sex lives of beautiful rich people. The women I once knew kept a tidy house - why are young things who stay here different?
He lives a fairly quiet, retired sort of life - spending his days researching and writing in the library, evenings in the pub with some old chums, is described as a "fat wee ugly old man", lives in an extravagantly Victorian house and is himself resolutely old-fashioned yet seems to have some sort of extraordinary appeal to tough young women, women so young that he writes "My fondness for young things could lead to difficulties if Niki is under the age of consent. What is the age of consent? (Memo: find out.)." In between his commentary on these various young things and the ways in which they interrupt his writing, he also muses about more enlightened topics, such as Socrates, his difficulties in understanding Aristophanes' The Clouds...

These diary entries introduce his pieces of writing, pieces he is having published in a local journal as he goes but which may or may not add up to some sort of ultimate world history - they are pretty random. First is a section concerning the war between Sparta and Athens, with a call to arms by Pericles. The next section moves onto Florencethe time Holy Roman Empire, where he has Fra Filippo (Lippi?) arguing about tomatoes and sinning carnally with the nun he was about to paint so he could paint without the distraction of carnal lust.

This theme is picked up, big time, in the third (and longest) section when he pillories a particular Brethren religious sect from England in the 19th century. Henry James Prince is its leader and the account here is taken directly from his journal
At first, he seems sound: in a nod to Silas Marner, he refuses access to his services to prominent people from the neighbourhood if all they're doing is coming to church for a nap. He wants only those actively engaged in receiving the word and in a Christian life to be there - which seems entirely reasonable to me, but it was not to the powers that be in the Church of England. And so Beloved Brother Prince sets up his own brotherhood - but he is gradually revealed as being an "enthusiast" in the sense described in Dr Johnson's Dictionary i.e. one who has a vain belief in private direct revelation from the Deity. Everything they do is the result of the spirit - a nice justification for doing what he wants. And so his Church becomes rather a vast financial empire in which Beloved Brother Prince is either the second coming of Christ or suffering a blasphemous delusion, depending upon who you listen to. In the same way, he celebrates his ascension by some sort of divine anointing or by raping a 15 year old virgin.

Quite how these three pieces work together, I'm not sure. There is a fourth element to the tale, in which Tunnock sets out in his history of the world (starting with the big bang) to make Scotland the logical successor of Greece and Rome. I think that perhaps the key to it all is a poem Tunnock claims to have found as a child which contradicted everything he had ever learnt about history in its portrayal of a grim view of civilization:
This beauty, this Divinity, this thought,
This hallowed bower and harvest of delight
Whose roots ethereal seemed to clutch the stars,
Whose amaranths perfumed eternity,
Is fixed in earthly soil enriched with bones
Of used up workers; fattened with the blood
Of prostitutes, the prime manure; and dressed
With brains of madmen and the broken hearts
Of children...
and finishes with a reminder that it is dung which keeps the roses sweet.

The author himself says that he had all these bits he didn't quite know how to join together, and so invented John Tunnock as his device to do so. While there is a lot of fun to be had in reading some parts of the book, and the book itself is a wonderful artefact, the best bits are the tales of Tunnock himself, rather than the pieces he is ostensibly writing. But then Gray pre-empts criticism by having a "review" by Sidney Workman as an epilogue, in which the book is heavily criticised: Henry James said HG Wells made novels by tipping his miind up like a cart and pouring in its contents. At first Old Men in Love seems to have been made in the same haphazard way, but some research in the National Library of Scotland shows it is stuffed with extracts from Gray's earlier writings... These rags of forgotten historical plays fill nineteen chapters. The rest are stuffed with a great deal of half-baked popular science... also political diatribes from pamphlets published before three general elections... Like most Scotsmen Gray thinks himself an authority on Burns, so we find an essay on Burns...

A lot has been written in the press about this book, but I think the account given by the Times Literary Supplement provides the best context for it.

Nakedbus.com Comes Through (Twice)

I've had the occasional grumble about nakedbus.com and their inability to stick to timetable, but I have had two trips recently, each for a mere $1, which have redeemed them in my eyes. The more recent of the two was when I was in Wellington for a few days to see the Mountain Goats. As it happened, the band was a no-show, so I wanted to do something just a little out of the ordinary (in between my trips to the various libraries I was working in, delicious French, Italian and Malaysian food and, of course, visits to numerous cafes). And so I found myself doing a guided tour of Wellington - I don't think they took me anywhere I hadn't been (the first part actually went past the door of the apartment I was staying in and circled the environs for a while) but it was nice to be taken to the Botanical Gardens, around the south coast and up to the lookout. All for $1 (nakedbus works by contracting with various operators to carry its passengers, and they always sell the first seat (at least) for $1).

But my real coup was at the end of January, something I had scored for myself late last year. There was a question on the thorntree about whether the nakedbus trip to Milford Sound was any good: I didn't even know they had such a trip. Nor did many other people, it seems, because I was able to get myself a bus trip from Queenstown to Milford, a 2.5 hour cruise on the Milford Sound and then back to Queenstown - all for $1!

I decided to make a weekend of it, and hired some sort of semi-monstrous Ford SUV to take me. My first night I only got as far as Owaka (maybe 100 km from home) where I stayed in the newly opened YHA - the former Owaka Hospital, which still had quite a bit of its equipment in one of the wings. It is a big hostel, and only had half a dozen guests so I had the dorm to myself. I had a very pleasant meal in the Gumdiggers Cafe in town and then, just before the light faded, drove out to the beach (I had no idea it was only about 5 km away). Most spectacular was Surat Bay. I'm not sure why, but I took no photos, but here's an amazing shot google images conjured up, by a fellow called Chris Garden:
There's a hostel right at Surat Bay - one day I expect I'll go stay there.

I had an early start on the Sunday, a pick up at something like 7:00! The tour included full commentary and stops at various points of interest along the way, such as:
I have been to Milford before, but I was driving, so pretty much all my energy was taken up navigating - there was certainly very little chance of getting a photo along the way, as the road offers few stopping places. Going through on the bus meant I could take plenty:Through some oversight, I failed to take a photo of the particular boat we went on. All I can say it was not like this one, not even from the same company ours was rather smaller. The crew was nice - I spent quite some time talking with - it turns out her home town is the place I was visiting in my next trip after Milford. As for the Sound,I didn't see any whales or dolphins although they do show up every so often. I did see what looked like large brown slugs in the distancehaving a peaceful day, not at all perturbed by the gaping tourists at their shouldersand a waterfallIt was a nice day out, not quite as spectacular as all the hype had led me to expect, but it would be nice to take one of the overnight cruises here at some stage.