Friday, 20 October 2017

Melbourne Creative Landmark: The Nicholas Building

I originally wrote this profile as part of a walking tour submission to Melbourne's City of Literature office. With its consent, I'm sharing it with you...

This 1926 office building is at the heart of Melbourne’s creative traditions.

It was built on the fortunes of the Aspro company which manufactured aspirin, and for a long time it was a hub of Flinders Lane’s fashion industry, or ‘rag trade’.

There are still aspects of that trade active here today, including a company making buttons using traditional methods.

However, in recent years the building has broadened its creative activities, becoming what’s called a ‘vertical laneway’.

Like Melbourne’s famous ground-level lanes, a vertical laneway is composed of numerous small-scale businesses – located in a high-rise building.

Literature is a strong element of the Nicholas Building’s mix. This is where convicted bank robber Gregory Roberts wrote the novel Shantaram, based partly on his fugitive life in Mumbai.

It’s also the long-time home of Collected Works, Melbourne’s top poetry bookshop.

Walk to the list of tenants in the beautiful barrel-vaulted arcade, and look for enterprises that welcome visitors.

You’ll find the poetry bookshop, art galleries exhibiting local artists, the button shop selling its attractive creations, and other outlets selling handcrafted fashion and gifts.

Take some time to ascend in the old-fashioned lifts which retained attendants well into the 21st century, and explore the creativity of this extraordinary place.

As you leave the Nicholas Building, cross the street and take a moment to admire its impressive facade. Covered with terracotta tiles, it was influenced by the Chicago School and was at the cutting edge of Melbourne architecture in its day.

The Nicholas Building still stands out among its neighbours along Swanston Street. It may be a little wrinkled with the passage of time, but it has great bones.

The Nicholas Building is located at 37 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Joo Chiat & Katong Food Tour: Singapore on a Plate

On this trip I was hosted by BetelBox Tours, the Singapore Tourism Board and the Raffles Singapore.

When I visited Singapore in 2015, I went on an excellent food tour of the city's Joo Chiat and Katong neighbourhoods.

Operated by BetelBox Tours, a company connected with a local hostel, it covered the food of Singapore’s largest architecture conservation district: an area associated with Malay, Peranakan Straits Chinese, and Eurasian communities.

The tour was a pleasant walk through a low-rise area, and the food was great and plentiful. It was fun, sociable, and with some interesting social history woven into the strolls between food stops.

It was also top value for money. Keen foodies as we were, the group I joined could hardly have polished off the vast quantity of edibles presented to us. From memory, the guide took leftovers from our final banquet back to the hostel as a treat for the backpackers.

Here are some images from the tour for your enjoyment...

Delicious! And colourful!

Find out more about the Joo Chiat / Katong Food walk and make bookings at this link.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Portmeirion, Wales: The Village by Night

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

In September I had the good fortune to revisit a place I haven't seen for 25 years: the beautiful village of Portmeirion in Wales.

Not that it's a real village. Rather it's a confection of Italianate buildings and facades, put in place over decades by the late Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

The architect wanted to show how architecture and nature could work harmoniously together; so he rescued demolished statuary and facades from around Britain, reinstalling them here.

The result is a beautiful though slightly odd village which feels too sublime to be real: a fairy-tale place.

It was this curious quality which led actor/director Patrick McGoohan to film his surreal mystery-drama TV series The Prisoner here (below I'm wearing a characteristic badge of the Village's inhabitants in the series).

By chance the 50th anniversary of its first screening fell in September, and it's still a spectacular viewing experience - I recommend it to you.

Portmeirion is mostly visited by day-trippers, to whom it's open during daylight hours. But if you stay overnight in the hotel or one of its rooms scattered through the Village, you can roam around freely after dark.

This is what Narrelle and I did, and were rewarded with a magical experience. The sky was clear, the stars were out, and Williams-Ellis' remarkable creation was even more beautiful than ever.

After seeing these photos I took on the night, I hope you agree.
As the inhabitants of the Village were fond of saying in The Prisoner, "Be seeing you!"

And a small additional note: this post was written in the grand John Rylands Library in Manchester. A beautiful space for composition, I think you'll agree:

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review: Henry V at the Pop-up Globe, Melbourne

The slogan of the Globe Theatre replica currently adorning Melbourne's Kings Domain is "Shakespeare like it's 1614."

This seems like a missed opportunity to me; I would've gone with "Party like it's 1599." But I'm a turn of the century kinda guy, even if it's the 16th century we're talking about.

Whatever. The point is, there's an excellent scaled-down version of the Bard's famous venue parked next to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with a repertoire of four plays: Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

It's Henry V that Narrelle and I have come to see on an overcast Sunday afternoon which is tentatively threatening to rain. It shouldn't be a problem, as we have seats beneath the O-shaped roof, but the "groundlings" who get in cheap and stand in front of the stage are beneath the open sky and are not allowed umbrellas.

Even though it's a history play and might therefore be assumed to be weighty fare, I instantly realise that it's a great choice for this venue. For a start, the Chorus, the narrator character who introduces the play and changes of location, is perfectly in his element here. When he asks us...
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... we can look above us and see the "wooden O" of which he speaks.

And it turns out, the "imaginary forces" he pleads for us to use are up to the job, aided by sound and motion upon the thrust stage. The battles with the French army, when they come, are noisy and clanging, aided at one point by the keen of bagpipes.

Despite this sound and fury, to which the audience lends wholeheartedly its support via cheers and clapping, the quiet scenes hold their own. When Henry and others reflect upon the coming deaths before the battle, Shakespeare's thoughtful words are received with respectful attention by the audience. There's true revulsion, too, at Henry's later war crime, his order to kill the French prisoners.

Still, the venue - with nothing like a fourth wall, especially given its daylight performances - invites a broad performance of this history play, and that's what we get. Comedy scenes are played up, stirring calls to arms are cheered, and cast members often walk through the audience, interacting with the groundlings.

The only element I'd question is the overwrought accents and highly effete mannerisms of the French, along with a jokey suggestion of the Dauphin's homosexual desires. Though this treatment has been used in other productions, it seem to harness prejudices that would be best left in the 16th century. We don't need to see the French portrayed as "unmanly" in order to recognise them as the baddies of Shakespeare's piece.

Overall, it's great fun to see the play in the setting for which it was written, and a delight to see audience members (many of them young) enjoying theatre so fully.

There are plenty of seating options from basic to more comfortable, but you can't beat the standing-room-only groundling tickets, which go for about $20. I spent the first half of the play seated, but the second half leaning on the stage, with actors whirling about just above me - and it was great fun.

The time went quickly and I was glad I'd forsaken my seat for the best spot in the house. If you choose this option though, take a raincoat - there's a lot of fake blood splashing about, and it might end up on you.

The Pop-up Globe's season continues in Melbourne to 12 November 2017. Find details and make bookings at its website.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2017

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which pushes boundaries. As Narrelle Harris and I were in Britain for most of this year's fest, we've only had a chance to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what we've seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

The Yonder
Until 30 September 2017, Lithuanian Club

Title and Deed: Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

It’s a challenge attending the Fringe Festival when you’ve returned home from the UK just the previous evening.

Fortunately, a great show can keep you alert even when your body’s circadian rhythms are staring dry-eyed into the stage lights and on to infinity.

Sadly though, the first show of the evening is not that show.

The Yonder, a “stupid race through deep space” is sadly just that. Three actors (Elizabeth Davie, Ezel Doruk and Shannan Lim, pictured above) play out a science fiction farce via tropes that were already outdated by the '80s.

The gay love sub-plot gives the best moments in a show that otherwise lacks pace, punch or originality. Otherwise it makes me miss the genius of the 4 Noels, or Rama Nicholas, who's so ably taken up where they left off.

But hurrah for Title and Deed, exactly the tonic my jetlagged brain requires. Keith Brockett (pictured left) plays a traveller, a stranger in our land – a man in transit in the world and in life.

He tells us stories of an unidentified home and a half understood ‘here’ that render both places odd and liminal.

Brockett delivers Will Eno’s script with Wildean deftness, superb timing, and a fine sense of its absurdity and pathos.

It’s a performance which is funny, clever and often surprisingly contemplative. It’s also full of the joy of words and imagery, drawing together meanings and contrasts.

My head was full of three weeks of England and Wales; so the themes of countries, cultures and life being strange places where we are all lost sometimes was resonant.

Kudos to director Laura Maitland too. Kudos to everyone. Title and Deed is charming, funny, a delight.

I shall now resume staring into lights until I can see infinity.

(Oh, there it is).

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

The Interpenetration of Opposites
Until 30 September 2017, Howey Downstairs

The Basement Tapes
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

In one of PG Wodehouse's short stories, a character decries novels which feature "married couples who find life grey, and can't stick each other at any price."

I try to banish this amusing line from my mind as a recorded voiceover strikes up an argument between an apparent couple later in life, arguing over the everyday grind.

But The Interpenetration of Opposites is, in fact, that kind of story. It actually starts years earlier, with the actors portraying friends at university who progress from uncertainties about their study choices to uncertainties about their life choices.

There's tension between the pursuit of personal fulfilment, versus grasping for hard-edged security. Which could make the spine of a good drama, if the actors were up to the challenge. Unfortunately there's a lot of flat and unconvincing delivery onstage, leavened by the occasional dash of sarcastic intonation.

It doesn't help that the cast make the already difficult sightlines worse by sitting in the front row when not performing. Overall it's hard to like any of the characters, or even to identify with them. Maybe Wodehouse had it right after all.

I have more luck in North Melbourne, after hopping the 57 tram back to Arts House for The Basement Tapes.

In the Warehouse venue behind it, a young woman (played by Stella Reid) is fossicking among a jumbled collection of household objects.

They turn out to be the contents of her deceased grandmother's basement, which she's sorting through.

Then she finds an old cassette tape which her grandma recorded her memories on, and things take a sharp turn into strangeness.

No spoilers here, but what follows is an intriguing - at times, frightening - piece of theatre that's expertly delivered. Reid gives us a sympathetic, emotionally awkward character who we warm to, adding weight to her fate.

Everything about The Basement Tapes is well judged - including Jane Yonge's direction and Thomas Lambert's sound, which adds an eerie depth to this small-scale production.

It's a perfect piece of Fringe theatre, the sort of work that stays with you for some time. Even if it gives you nightmares.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 1 October 2017. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.

Friday, 22 September 2017

A Horse! A Horse! In Richard III's Footsteps near Leicester, UK

On my visit to Leicester I was hosted by the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, the King Richard III Visitor Centre, and the Belmont Hotel.

"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

There was a good chance I'd quote Shakespeare's famous line from Richard III at some point, the day I visited the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. The moment I heard about the marshy ground which had unhorsed him on the day of his final battle, out the words came.

That marsh had long been remembered, but its exact location in this much-drained modern era was uncertain until recently, when a comprehensive survey established precisely where the Battle of Bosworth Field had taken place in 1485.

It turns out that the Heritage Centre, established in the 1970s, is actually on the site of the king's camp rather than the battlefield itself, which stretches down from the site over privately-owned farmland.

However, there are great views from the centre's extensive parkland, which features old and new memorials to this epochal battle which ended the reign of the Plantagenet kings and ushered in the Tudor dynasty...


There's also much to learn from the exhibitions within the buildings of a former farm.


Weaponry is well covered, with a wall of evil devices explained by intelligent captioning. The visitor also learns about the different classes of soldiers present at the battle, and how they would have fought.


There's some useful audio-visual content, including a depiction of the battle, and commentary from characters (a farmer-soldier, a mercenary's wife etc) who might have witnessed the events.

At the end of the exhibition is the interesting story of how the location of the battefield was debated over the decades, and how it was finally decided by a scientific survey which turned up cannon shot and other military debris.

This being England, the task was complicated by the locale also witnessing a battle in the later Civil War, but there was enough period evidence to fix the site once and for all.

Given the significance of the Tudor monarchs' era - including the break with the Catholic church, and the start of Britain's empire - it seems fitting that the place where their reign began should be appropriately marked and remembered.

With the recent rediscovery of King Richard III's remains in nearby Leicester, there's much more for the historically interested to do in the area - starting with a visit to the excellent King Richard III Visitor Centre, followed by a visit to the late monarch's tomb in nearby Leicester Cathedral.

But that's a story I'll expand upon another day. As Shakespeare has Richard say, "An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told."

Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: Jumeirah Carlton Towers, London

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Jumeirah Carlton Towers.

Narrelle and I started this trip with two nights at the Langham Hotel, then yesterday Ubered around to Belgravia for two nights at the Carlton.

The Carlton Towers was not a hotel I knew anything about, and its postwar exterior doesn't do much to catch the eye. But the location, near Knightsbridge Tube station, Harrods and Hyde Park, is appealing; and the rooms are lovely.

This is the interior of our Junior Suite, basically a joined bedroom and sitting room, with a balcony overlooking the leafy Cadogan Place Gardens (a private space, but one that hotel guests have access to)...


The room is very pleasant, the decor a nicely-judged mix of classical elements and modern lines. Very tasteful and soothing, as is the garden view from the balcony.

As for the hotel's public spaces, there's an ambient cafe/lounge off the lobby called the Chinoiserie (whose central tree is re-dressed as each season changes)...


... and a restaurant which is about to undergo a major refurbishment. It's a pleasant spot in which to have breakfast, and there are hints of the hotel's Middle Eastern ownership in the spread: including hommus, labneh, etc.


Other guest facilities include a pool with a view...


... and on the 9th floor, alongside the wellness centre and gym, is The Peak. This is an unexpectedly light-filled space with great views across London to the south. Appealed to me as a great place to sit and write.


The hotel is, as you will have guessed, not cheap. But it's in a great location, and manages to be surprisingly serene in the centre of such a busy city.

The Jumeirah Carlton Towers is located at 1 Cadogan Place, Belgravia, London. Find more info and make bookings at the Jumeirah website.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Art in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Sunshine Coast.

On my recent visit to Queensland's Sunshine Coast, I joined a couple of media tours.

The first one, held before the Australian Society of Travel Writers' annual convention, spurned the region's famous beaches and headed inland.

There's quite a rise in altitude as you head west, and a dramatic change in landscape. Instead of sleepy holiday towns along a strip of beach, you find villages scattered through mountainous green countryside.

The focus of this media tour was art, and I think our small group was fairly dubious about its abilities. We could all write, of course, but our skills at painting and pottery were largely untested.

Our first artistic stop was at the Mary Cairncross Reserve. There's a great view from here of the Glass House Mountains (named by Captain Cook; but I urge you to look up the Aboriginal story of the mountains' formation on Wikipedia, it's fascinating).

Set up on a grassy area next to the visitor centre, and instructed by veteran artist James McKay, we had a go at painting the scene in watercolours...

I think we didn't do too bad for beginners.

The next day, the challenge was clay rather than paint. We dropped into Fried Mudd, a pottery studio near Maleny, to fashion a chicken in only two hours.

Again we were assisted by an expert (thank god), in this case potter Cathy Lawley. Cathy guided us through the process, as we fashioned two 'bowls' from strips of clay, which would then be joined to form the body of the chicken.

Tricky business, especially when we progressed to the finer details of markings, and fashioning the beak and comb. Here's how it went...

And here's what they looked a day later, after they'd been fired and delivered to us at the convention:

I don't think we did a bad job here either, though I was happier with my painting.

But we learnt the basics of the two crafts, had some fun while creating, and saw some beautful scenery on the way.

If you're wondering how we got our two very heavy chickens home to Melbourne, by the way, we didn't.

We gifted them to my colleague Kerry Heaney, who lives in Brisbane, so she could add them to her chicken and have a trio of ceramic chooks in her garden.

And the names of our creations? Dahlia and Agatha. PG Wodehouse fans will know where we got those from.