Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Written in Dublin

As part of my trip to Ireland last year (hosted by Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland), I investigated the famous literary heritage of Dublin.

Though it's not a huge city, over the centuries it's produced many towering figures in English literature, including the likes of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift and Bram Stoker.

But how do you engage with these geniuses in the 21st century city? I spoke to an expert to get the literary lowdown on Dublin. Catherine Duffy works for the city's City of Literature office; like Melbourne, Dublin is a recognised UNESCO City of Literature.

Tim: How important to the city is its literary identity?

Catherine: I think it’s of great importance, it’s a huge sense of pride and identity. Everyone would know the main writers, both the contemporary and classical writers. They would know some of their major works and what parts of the city they’re from. So it’s strong, writers and artists in general are looked up to in Dublin. It’s a cool thing to be.

Even children, they love meeting writers and they think it’s really trendy. A lot of them say "I want to be a writer". So, there is a sense of pride in it, and we do identify with it. I think because we know what we’re good at. Horse racing and writing are two things that we know we’re good at.

Tim: There's that picture of the literary type at the cafe and the pub, a kind of sexy image from the past - Oscar Wilde with his absinthe.

Catherine: Although many would believe that the classic Dublin writers weren’t very la-de-dah or nerdy, they were hellraisers really. They did things that would provoke society and they were trendmakers, they did quirky things. Oscar Wilde was in prison. WB Yeats, some of the things he wrote about angered and provoked society. Another writer was Brendan Behan, an alcoholic but a very colourful man.

They were all very different, and unique personalities and characters. They were bookish but they also had strong character traits that were kind of reckless, and probably self destroying in a way. They didn’t really care what effect it would have on their reputation. All they cared about was producing good work and producing what they wanted to produce.

Tim: What are the top literary highlights of the city for visitors?

Catherine: There are two bike companies that run tours of the city and they have a strong background on literary Dublin and they will tell you the tales. They’ll go to the different statues and the different birthplaces of the writers and they will tell you about them, they’re quite knowledgeable on it.

You’ve also got the Literary Pub Crawl. You don’t really drink on it, but a lot of the writers congregated there and exchanged their work, and so a literary pub crawl tells you about the writers that frequented them. It’s actors who do it, so it’s quite entertaining. It’s a good evening.

Another experience, especially if you’re interested in the old oral tradition, is an evening in the oldest pub in Dublin. It’s this guy, Johnny Daly, he’s an historian, and he tells you about the folklore and the fairies of literary Dublin.

Another thing which is quite quirky is Archbishop Marsh’s Library. It was the first public library in Ireland, it opened in 1701. The keeper there can bring you round and show it to you, the books are chained to the wall.

Another thing to go to is the Chester Beatty Library which is right beside Dublin Castle. It’s quite beautiful and it has a lot of Islamic manuscripts. And of course there's our National Library.

Tim: What’s your personal favourite?

Catherine: Probably the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College, but that’s because every time I walk into there I gasp. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s such a thing that you’d really miss out if you didn’t walk through there. It’s stunning.  It shocks me, actually. It’s amazing.

This post was sponsored by Check out its site for deals on Dublin hotels.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Wild Art of the Derwent

I've just had a pleasant short visit to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and the four days I spent there were dominated by thoughts of MONA.

I refer, of course, to the Museum of Old and New Art, which has rapidly become the city's number one tourist attraction since its opening a year ago.

I was partly in Hobart to catch a few acts in the annual MONA FOMA arts festival (and the new opera The Barbarians and the Dresden Dolls concert were both fantastic); but also, to see what had changed at MONA since my first visit last year.

For those who came in late - MONA was founded by the eccentric art collector David Walsh, who made his millions via a professional gambling system he developed. It apparently gives him an edge, which ends up funding purchases of fascinating art.

The gambling dens' losses are Hobart's gain, as Walsh has thrown open his art collection to the masses, via the enormous purpose-built art museum dug into a promontory on the Derwent River.

It's a beautiful location, still the home of a winery and with million dollar views over the water. The best way to get there is via ferry from the city centre; the voyage gets you in the right mood for appreciating art.

Much has been written about the long-term exhibits which launched MONA last year. Most are still there - the bizarre loo with strategically placed mirrors, the timed waterfall which forms words taken from the Web, the all-white library with blank books and pages, the machine which mimics the human digestive system.

What's new is an exhibition of the works of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who signs his name in cheeky mimicry of the Disneyland logo.

There's some fascinating stuff here: old rubber tyres painstakingly etched with delicate art; figures of Christ twisted into Möbius-like loops; a lofty steel suppository with Gothic decorative elements; X-ray images of rats bearing a crucifix; a full-size carry case for a motorcycle, with motorbike within.

It sounds potentially offensive, at least to some; but that's not the vibe I was picking up from my fellow visitors. People were interested, fascinated, bemused, chatty, laughing... basically, being stimulated by the art.

We seem to have come a long way since the days when contemporary art was routinely attacked by the tabloid media as representing the impending collapse of civilisation; and isn't that a relief?

The Wim Delvoye exhibition continues to April 2012 at MONA, 655 Main Road, Berriedale, Hobart; adult entry $20 (free to Tasmanians). MONA FOMA continues to 22 January 2012. More at

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Tacos of the North

Two months ago I wrote about the Beatbox Kitchen, one of the new breed of food vans which cruise around Melbourne's inner northern suburbs.

Every day these vans, which each prepare a simple selection of a particular type of food, notify their fans of their current location via Twitter.

Last time I enjoyed an excellent burger produced by Beatbox Kitchen; this time, I was investigating the Taco Truck.

I found this colourful food van set up next to a stretch of green parkland in Carlton North, part of a linear park which follows the path of the former Inner Circle railway (which I wrote about last month):

There was plenty of colour around the back as well:

Because there was a fair stretch of grass in this location, a lot of people had set up as if for a picnic:

It may have been because of the common miscalculation by which businesses assume that it's never busy around the Xmas/New Year period (and are then surprised when it is), but as I ordered I was warned it'd be a 35 minute wait.

In the meantime I drank a Mexican soft drink, a Jarritos Lime Limón ($4). The bottle's labelling described it as "naturally flavoured soda", but it was also a lurid green and tasted a lot like a jellybean of the same colour:

Sipping my jellybean drink, I sat on the grass and chatted to fellow would-be diners for half an hour, then drifted back to the truck to wait for the call... and wait. In the end, it was a full hour between ordering and receiving.

It was, however,  worth the delay. Here's the Taco Plate ($12), a selection of two tacos served with a pile of home-made corn chips. There was a choice of fish, chicken or potato tacos - I chose the fish taco (which came with coleslaw, lime juice and poppy mayonnaise), and the chicken taco (with corn salsa, baby spinach and chipotle mayonnaise).

On the advice of the staff in the van, I sprinkled the fish taco with the green sauce on offer (hot), the chicken with the brown sauce (hottest) and the corn chips with the red sauce (somewhere between the two).

To accompany it I'd ordered a serve of guacamole ($5). This came with more of the corn chips, delightfully thick and randomly curved:

The verdict? It was all very tasty food, spicy and clearly prepared from fresh ingredients. It was a great meal overall in a pleasant location; and worth the wait.

You can find the Taco Truck's latest location at

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Aboard the Santa Train 2: Watson to Perth

Last week I shared the first half of my recent trip across the continent aboard the Indian Pacific train. Here are some pics from the second half of the journey...

1. Watson (08:00, 9 Dec 2011)

We pulled into this non-location, an arbitrary stopping place named after Australia's third prime minister, to find dozens of people waiting for us.

Although there's nothing at Watson other than a bit of scrub and a lone tree which is annually decked with tinsel for the train's arrival, the audience had driven in from hundreds of kilometres away, some camping overnight.

Among them were many Aboriginal people including young students, and as our resident singer Jessica Mauboy is part Aboriginal herself this was always going to be an interesting meeting.

As you can see from the photo, the pop star and her backers performed unplugged under the desert sky (spot the local person recording the scene with an iPad in the lower right - those devices get everywhere):

Here's a few of the audience and a dog, all making the best use of an old lounge chair (which Santa used later for distributing presents to the kids):

2. Cook (10:00, 9 Dec 2011)

Cook was once a town with a decent-sized population, which lived to serve the railway running through it. Nowadays the population has dwindled to just four people, one of whom runs the souvenir shop which opens when the Indian Pacific arrives to refill with water.

An American tourist kindly took this shot of me in front of the sign marking the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1917:

3. Rawlinna (16:45, 9 Dec 2011)

For the rest of the day we had views of the featureless Nullarbor Plain, an amazingly flat and treeless expanse. The train drivers might also have had a bout of white line fever (or steel rail fever) as they drove the train along the longest dead straight stretch of rail in the world - all 480km of it.

Finally we crossed the border into Western Australia and arrived at Rawlinna, another virtual ghost town which once serviced the railway. Although the station building was closed, its caretakers had remarkably managed to keep a patch of lawn growing between the building and the rails.

It was facing this lawn that Jess Mauboy performed to a small audience of stockmen in impressive hats, assisted by the Man in Red:

4. Kalgoorlie (20:30, 9 Dec 2011)

In the evening we reached the gold mining city to encounter the largest crowd yet for the singer's concerts, spread out in front of the station and across the footbridges leading over it.

One of my colleagues and I slipped away into the centre of town for a drink at one of the outback city's famous old pubs, and ended up at the Exchange Hotel.

It was a warm, humid night... in fact it was so warm, the barmaids kept taking off clothing. By the time we slipped away back to the station at 10pm, things were getting quite scanty.

5. Perth (09:00, 10 Dec 2011)

Finally, after a night's sleep, our three day journey came to an end as we pulled into East Perth Terminal. One more concert to catch, then it was a quick hop over the lines to the suburban train, and a finally short train journey into the city centre itself.

It had been a great journey, with fine singing, gift giving, cityscapes, fascinating desert and men in big hats. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Aboard the Santa Train 1: Sydney to Adelaide

Happy New Year!

Those of you with decent memories may remember me taking the Indian Pacific train from Sydney to Perth two years (and about 100 blog posts) ago.

As you may recall, each year the train's operator Great Southern Rail lays on a special Outback Christmas train carrying a pop singer and Santa Claus.

Concerts are staged along the way, raising money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The 2011 call came and I was invited aboard, this time in the company of the talented singer Jessica Mauboy (though I admit I had to look up who she was - my fault, not hers).

As I wrote a lot about the journey last time, this time I thought I'd share images from stops along the way, adding some comments.

1. Sydney (15:00, 7 Dec 2011)

The Indian Pacific is so long that it can't fit a single platform at Sydney's Central Station; it's split over two, then shunted together once everyone's aboard.

A few fast facts about our edition of the train:
  • From Sydney to Perth, it would cover 4,352 kilometres;
  • It contained 27 carriages;
  • The entire train was a vast 639 metres long.
2. Near Bathurst (20:20, 7 Dec 2011)

As we were having dinner, the sun obligingly set in memorable fashion on my side of the restaurant carriage. It's not easy to take photos through glass, but this came out quite well:

3. Bathurst (20:40, 7 Dec 2011)

We were an hour late into Bathurst, so these kids had been putting in extra time entertaining the crowd gathered at the station for the free concert. A few speeches quickly delivered, then Jessica Mauboy hit the stage with her backing vocalist and two guitarists. 

The pattern was the same for each concert - Ms Mauboy would sing a few of her own songs, then the kids would join her in Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You. In this case, with choreographed hand movements.

4. Near Broken Hill (08:30, 8 Dec 2011)

I snapped this shot of the empty Queen Adelaide restaurant carriage just before breakfast. Elegant, isn't it?

Meals were a highlight of the journey; with an interesting gang of media from across the world aboard the train, it was good to mix up the seating regularly to meet someone new.

We were supposed to stop at Broken Hill before breakfast, for another concert and a coach tour around town. Unfortunately, track works on this section of the journey had so slowed the train that we were now running very late and Silver City had to be skipped to catch up time.

However, I later heard that Jess Mauboy had made a point of getting out briefly at the station to say hello to a few fans who'd hung on in the hope of meeting her. Whatta gal. 

5. Adelaide (17:30, 8 Dec 2011)

We pulled into Adelaide over two hours late, so there was little chance of travelling into the nearby city centre. The train was due to pull out again in an hour, hoping to get its schedule back on (ahem) track.

So I hung around the GSR facility at Adelaide Parklands Station to see the next concert. Despite the delay, there was a crowd of 100 or so to see the singer, and to listen to a moving story about how the Royal Flying Doctor Service flew a young man to Melbourne for an organ transplant.

6. Nearing the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia (06:30, 9 Dec 2011)

So far on the journey we'd passed through a variety of landscapes, both urban and bush. Now, back on schedule, we were entering the most fascinating landscape of the journey - desert, including the stark Nullarbor Plain.

This early morning snap from the train (note the Xmas decoration) is still mostly green, but the low scrub and red earth are a hint of what's soon to come...

Join me next week for song and tears on a treeless plain, lively downtown Cook (population 4), studiously cool stockmen, seriously underdressed barmaids, and a shining new ocean.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.