Thursday, 28 April 2016

Romanesque in Gippsland: St Mary's Church, Bairnsdale

I'm currently visiting Bairnsdale in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, Australia (courtesy of the East Gippsland Shire Council). I'm mainly here to deliver a couple of library talks about travel writing, but this morning I had a chance to look around the town before my return train to Melbourne.

Bairnsdale is a busy commercial hub rather than a tourist hotspot, though many travellers pass through here on their way to scenic places such as Lakes Entrance. As a result there aren't many obvious tourist attractions in the town, but one such is St Mary's.

This Catholic Church was built in 1913, and its exterior is interesting because of its Romanesque style and its asymmetrically placed bell tower. It certainly looks quite different from the standard 19th century neoclassical churches you find throughout the Australian countryside:

What's particularly remarkable about the church, however, is its interior. In 1931, the church's Father Cremin encountered Francesco Floreani, an Italian painter who'd trained in Turin. Due to the Great Depression, he'd been forced to leave Melbourne and take up farm work in the countryside.

Cremin invited him to leave the land and paint the interior of the church, a job which took seven years from 1931 to 1938. The result is remarkable - a kind of mini-Sistine Chapel in East Gippsland:

With the beautiful stained glass windows, it's quite an effect:

Floreani even managed to work himself into one scene, wearing a blue collar and keeling in prayer. Even a religious artist must be allowed the occasional selfie.

St Mary's Church is located at 240 Main Street, Bairnsdale. Entry free.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Journey Through Oman - Article by Article

I travelled to Oman as a guest of Oman Tourism.

As a freelancer I write for a variety of publications, with articles appearing at random intervals.

Because of this, the pieces I write about a particular trip will be published over a stretch of time in various places, so there's no connection between them for the casual reader.

I know how the jigsaw pieces fit together, though. And with a bit of luck, the resulting articles end up as a fairly complete document of a particular trip.

Here's an example, from a May 2014 media tour I joined in Oman.

1. I reached the capital, Muscat, via an Omanair flight from Bangkok, which I reviewed for Fairfax Media's Traveller section:

2. The backbone of the itinerary was a journey by 4WD vehicle from the capital Muscat through the Al Hajar mountains to Jabal Akhdar, then down again via desert terrain to a turtle-watching location on the Indian Ocean coast.

You can read about that journey here, in Issimo Magazine:

3. The highlight in the mountains was the brand-new Alila Jabal Akhdar resort, which had just opened the weekend we arrived. Here's what it was like, via my review for Traveller:

4. The Issimo article ended with me about to encounter sea turtles laying their eggs by moonlight. Here's what happened next, as recounted for Fairfax's Sun-Herald newspaper:

5. When we arrived back in Muscat after the turtle-watching, we stayed at the posh Shangri-La resort, which I reviewed in this blog:

6. One night in Muscat I attended a noisy percussion-based concert at the glamorous Royal Opera House Muscat, a pet project of Oman's ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. I wrote about it for the Sun-Herald:

7. Finally, after my colleagues had left I spent a day getting lost in the souq and narrow streets of Muttrah, the atmospheric old port of Muscat. My explorations ended up in Melbourne's Sunday Age newspaper:

And that was basically the entire trip, put into words! I love it when a plan comes together.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Welcome to Twin Peaks (aka Snoqualmie, USA)

The following post is based on the first draft of my Postcard from Twin Peaks article for The Age newspaper, which ended up being significantly restructured. I stayed in Snoqualmie as a guest of Visit Seattle, and paid for my own airfare to the USA. 

"I'll see you again in 25 years," said Laura Palmer in 1991, in the final episode of the cult TV series Twin Peaks.

Of course, Laura had been murdered before the beginning of the very first episode. The prediction was actually delivered by a spirit vision of her to FBI Agent Dale Cooper, in the strange place known as the Black Lodge.

Still with me? If you haven’t seen this series yet, you need to, if only for your television education. Premiering on mainstream American network ABC in 1990, it upended the then safe world of free-to-air TV.

With its complex, layered plot and beautiful cinematography, it was the harbinger of the quality television dramas we expect today from cable networks such as HBO.

Now, in the words of the prophetic Giant who appears to Cooper in times of stress, "It is happening again." Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have signed on for a third series, and location filming has been taking place in the leafy hills east of Seattle.

"Ronette's Bridge", Snoqualmie, USA.

This is why I'm standing on "Ronette's Bridge" over the Snoqualmie River, the on-screen location where the injured Ronette Pulaski was discovered, leading investigators to the murder site of Laura Palmer.

Since its star turn in 1990, the bridge has become part of a cycling and hiking route.

To my eyes, however, it still exudes the grim menace it possessed at the moment viewers sensed the full evil behind the death of a popular schoolgirl in an apparently idyllic town deep in the forests of the Pacific northwest.

The bridge itself seems to brood.

This is all my own imagination at work, of course – if you’d never watched Twin Peaks, you’d no doubt be admiring a sturdy piece of rail infrastructure in pretty countryside.

Which makes me ponder why Twin Peaks struck such a chord with me, and with so many others. With an enthusiastic international following (fans still regularly trickle to Snoqualmie from around the globe), it seemed to transcend its American setting by being hyper-American.

The location of the 'Welcome to Twin Peaks' sign in the TV series.

Twin Peaks' collision of small town folksiness and creeping horror was, after all, a favoured approach of pioneering suspense series The Twilight Zone.

But when you think about it, every culture tells stories of the collision between modernity and the ancient spirits that linger just beyond our peripheral vision (think of the stock English villages depicted as secretly hewing to pagan traditions a la The Wicker Man, for example).

Our own unease with Australia's uninhabited spaces of desert and gum trees sits well alongside the threat lurking within the mighty stands of Douglas firs that surround Twin Peaks.

In the shadow of the infinite, however, life must go on, as it does in the TV series’ strangely juxtaposed soap opera plotline of business rivalries and dodgy dealings.

Twede's Cafe, the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks.

Lunch at Twede’s in nearby North Bend (the Double R Diner in the series) is a disorientating experience, as location filming has only recently finished and the diner retains its recent refurbishment back to the look of the '90s.

Feeling like an extra in an extended scene, I order - inevitably - "damn fine" coffee and a slice of cherry pie. Neither is as amazing as Agent Cooper found them, but I don’t care; I’m immersed in a fondly remembered component of Lynch and Frost’s fantasy world.

My final Twin Peaks location visit is a night spent at the Salish Lodge (aka the Great Northern), falling to sleep to the sound of the Snoqualmie Falls after drinking a Dale Cooper cocktail (gin, clove and cardamom-infused honey, dry honey cider, lemon) at the hotel bar.

I’ve never before visited a filming location which so resembles its onscreen counterpart. Laura, I’m ready for your return.

As Cooper once said, “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”

Monday, 11 April 2016

Quirky Structures of Outback Queensland

Over the past week I've been travelling through western Queensland, Australia, hosted by Outback Queensland and Queensland Rail Travel.

It's been a great experience, and one I'll be writing about soon for Fairfax's Traveller section. In the meantime, let me show you some memorable buildings and other structures I've seen on the way...

1. The Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine; under its branches, the Australian Labor Party was born in the 1890s:

2. The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach; this light aircraft hanging from the ceiling is an impressive exhibit:

3. This tank and windmill blade at Camden Park cattle station near Longreach make a great photographic subject; there's a touch of Mad Max about them:

4. This is the retro-themed lobby of the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. Country cool:

5. This curious structure on Carisbrooke station, near Winton, was left behind by a TV crew who filmed the French version of Survivor here:

6. Finally, here's the man himself - poet Banjo Paterson. This statue of him stands on Winton's main street, with the words of his famous song Waltzing Matilda on a curved sheet of corrugated iron behind him:

For the record, the song was first performed in 1895 just across the road, at the North Gregory Hotel.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2016 (Part 2)

Last post, Narrelle Harris (who has a new book out, The Adventure of the Colonial Boy) and I reviewed three shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are three more...

The Victoria Hotel, a venue at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

1. Michael Hing - The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I'd forgotten just how uncomfortable are the Greek Centre's fold-out chairs, to the point where you wonder if you can make it through an hour of comedy on their tiny, very hard surfaces.

Luckily Michael Hing is entertaining enough to take my mind off the discomfort. He's got a lot to say about racial stereotypes in Australia, and the complicated ways in which they play out in everyday life.

A lot of people have reacted oddly - or annoyingly - to Hing's Asian heritage over the years, from an old guy in Wales who was confused by his Aussie accent, to the magazine editor including him in a photo-shoot as the token Asian.

Hing is a warm and likeable performer, but a lot of the laughs here come from awkward stories about social encounters related to ethnicity. It's an interesting hour that shines a light on preconceptions and privilege.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Tim Vine - Tim Timinee Tim Timinee Tim Tim to You
Reviewed by Tim Richards

This British comedian's show is one of those rare ones, about which I can't relate a single piece of material without creating a spoiler. For Vine's act is full of one thing only: puns.

From start to finish, for a whole energetic, sweat-creating hour, he gallivants across the stage while doffing his straw hat, dancing, singing, and handling props. Oh, the props. There are so very many props, expertly handled by a man who would never let a groan-inducing piece of wordplay get away.

What's fascinating is how he adeptly varies his delivery to create variety within this single-focus show. Some puns are obvious and make us literally groan, others are very clever and make us laugh with delight. Sometimes Vine delivers them routinely, at other times he camouflages them until the crucial moment.

It's all very funny, and a throwback of sorts to the grand tradition of music hall. It's fitting, therefore, that Tim Vine should be performing so close to the site of the now-vanished Tivoli Theatre, once Melbourne's home of vaudeville.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Lawrence Leung - Very Strange Things
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

I first saw Lawrence Leung in his 2001 production Sucker, and I've looked forward to his shows every year since then. Very Strange Things returns to one of his favourite themes - pulling the wool over his audience's eyes in plain sight.

From the very start, Leung confesses he loves mysteries but he also loves to solve them. After taking a quick poll on we're nominal Scullys or Mulders, Leung proceeds to convince us he's psychic, while all the time reassuring us that he is not, in fact, psychic.

The Mulders in the crowd are happy with the mystery, but the Scullys present know that there's a trick to it. Even if we can't work it out for love nor money. He throws us a wee bone at the end, which contains the promise that if we can apply the same lateral thinking to the unsolved mysteries, we can work it out. Really, we can.

Leung is confident and relaxed, still with that boyish, geeky charm he's had for 15 years now. Part of the fun is not knowing how much of his presentation is innocent enthusiasm and how much is sly knowingness.

It's funny and more than that it's fascinating, whether you want to believe or whether you're trying to see the wizard behind the curtain.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

And that wraps up our coverage of this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which continues to 17 April 2016.  We wish you much laughter!