Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cronulla comments

Mark Steyn does his usual pithy take on what's going on here. And a genuine Aussie sheila has her say as well. And Keith Windschuttle. And the good Prof Bunyip.

No prizes for guessing what's at the heart of this matter: a bunch of self-marginalised young Muslim gangsta males with quite inexcusable attitudes to women. Not that you'd read that in the dead tree editions, anytime soon.

But then our own dear Froggie has a try. Swing and a miss, I'd say. Stick to saving albatrosses, they're less complex ecosystems.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Firenze - Day 20

We have allowed just this one day, as Venice is our primary goal for the second Italian week. The Uffizi gallery is first on the list, and leaves us with the same feeling as the Vatican Museum: a display of temporal power, but with far too much religious tat. However, the more ancient pieces of statuary are great, Botticelli's Venus glows at us, and there are a couple of Canaletto's little masterpieces tucked away in a side gallery. The buildings themselves are glorious, as is their context, and having seen the copy of Michelangelo's David in the piazza outside, we don't bother with the real thing.

On to the Ponte Vecchio - the bridge over the wide and dirty Arno, where gold and silversmiths have had stalls for hundreds of years - and are still, to judge from the prices, paying off the original mortgages. Up to the Boboli Gardens the long way, via the side streets and the Roman gate at the top. This is well worth it, as the gardens have vistas, fountains, statues and well tended paths. And the ticket gives us entrance to exhibitions at the Pitti Palace, so we walk over the hill and in the back door. The Palace was very forbidding from the side streets we had originally passed it on: built to be defended against all comers. But the Boboli Gardens are, effectively, the private back yard of the Palace, and this back-garden aspect of the Palace is still formal but welcoming. And once inside, the Mythologia e Erotica exhibition is staged in a series of sumptuously painted rooms.

When you start to multiply the number of Palaces, the number of painted rooms in each, and divide this by the number of artists required, it really is no wonder that the Renaissance threw up so many gifted people. The combination of an arms race in palatial outfitting, and the fact that these were private establishments outside the death grip of Mother Church (the other major artistic patron), virtually guaranteed results.

Not that these were without their obsessions of the time: Leda and the Swan loomed strangely large in the exhibition. The signature of babies breaking out of eggs, you see. But it has to be said that mediaeval erotica is very restrained - lots of heavy allegorical allusions but practically no explicitness. Mother Church might not have approved of the exhibits, but she would surely be pleased with the extent to which the artists had internalised her messages.

Deciding against another Duomo climb (Florence's magnificent Saint Maria del Fiore cathedral has a renowned dome by Brunelleschi) on the grounds that the Boboli was higher and was a bloody long way to have walked, we amble back via this cathedral and the shopping streets. The church has a superb facade, of white, red and green marble, used in a large mosiac to stunning effect. Tesellated and inlaid columns everywhere outside, but very austere inside.

The shops entrance us: the number and variety, plus the specialisation. Florence is a city to come back to: we regret not allowing more time.

Firenze - Day 19

The Intercity stops at each major station, and our compartment is occupied with four Italian women who gossip non-stop from Roma to Firenze. They quickly establish that we have less Italian than would be useful, but one does kindly offer us fresh mandarins along the way. Firenze charms us immediately, the more so when our LastMinute hotel in Via Nazionale regretfully tells us that the room has plumbing problems, and directs us just around the corner in Via Guelfa to a family hotel run by an archetypal Italian matron.

We have a late-afternoon stroll round the block, find an Internet point, and have a quick snacketto. Already, the Cow Parade - identical cast fibreglass cows, painted up and variously altered by local artists, has impressed us. And the city is chock full of leathergoods shops - Pelle Verre - so the smell of leather is never far away.

We are of course in the Old City, a few hundred metres away from the treno (train), but unlike Rome, we feel safe and a little observation over the next two days confirms this. Firenze is a nice, family city with lots of children, lots of workers, and is cleaner. Although the old drains do smell a little in places. Can't have everything. A great pizza in a back-room frequented almost exclusively by locals (always a good sign) tops off the night. We have fallen in to the local habit of a small carafe of vino, plus a large bottle of carbonated mineral water, with our evening meals. Rehydrates, and refreshes.

Rome - last day (18)

The Metro beckons, and day tickets are only 4 Euro. So it's off to the Vatican, Cipro stop. Where the Church's profit motive and trade in religious artefacts continues. But the Vatican Musuem is a wonderful and eclectic collection of decidedly non-religious artefacts, from Egyptian figures, through the whole Graeco-Roman early periods, to the Church proper in the single-digit A.D's. The Sistine Chapel, by contrast, was a let-down: Michelangelo's ceiling is positively familiar through endless reproductions, and the walls, even though by Botticelli et al, are just standard religious kitsch. And the chapel is infested with two types of repellent turisto: the overawed Catholics, who sit around the sides and just gawp, overwhelmed; and the illiterate, who have not figured out what signs saying in words and pictures "No cameras/videos/flash", actually mean.

The sheer length and opulence of the galleries leading to and from the Sistine are the main impression. But it is an ossified exhibit: there is little life, relevance to these times, or attempt to draw parallels. Very much a case of 'look how powerful we were and still are'.

The Vatican equivalent of the Bungy Jump is of course the climb up the Duomo, the viewing gallery near the very top of St Peter's dome. We take the lift to the gallery after coughing up the obligatory indulgence fee, and being warned that the climnb is not for those of 'cardiopatic tendencies'. In the gallery, there is the sound, far below, of an ending Mass, with organ accompaniment, which puts us very much in mind of Evensongs past. Onwards and upwards: the first part of the ascent is an internal spiral stair to the base of the Dome (itself - the Dome - another Michelangelo design), then a narrow, and increasingly tilted/inclined stair around and up the Dome itself. Which is built with a double-skin, these stairs being between the two. Then, finally, a straight climb over the Dome's upper slopes, and then outside onto the viewing gallery itself. With reputedly the best view in Rome.

And a couple of things become clear. The profit motive in the Vatican fee structure may be somewhat repellent in religious terms, but it certainly funds an impressive maintenance and conservation effort. From the Duomo, Vatican City is clean, gardened, mown, clipped and litter-free in exactly the way the rest of Rome, frankly, is not, but should be. And the genuine feeling from the pilgrims to this holy place leaves it's mark: there's a civitas which is very absent from the rest of Rome.

We descend onto the roof of St Peter's, where an iced tea goes down very well. Souvenirs (yes, there are shops and loos on the very roof of the Pope's church) are purchased. And so, down again to floor level, but we are elevated by the whole experience. A morning well spent.

As always, the little vignettes amuse us. The four-wheel-drive tractor, driven straight down the (ramped) steps in front of St Peter's with bits of the papal platform in tow, after the usual 1100 Wednesday Papal appearance. The throngs of slightly unruly pilgrims leaving after this event, complete with costumes and props right out of the Pythons' Life of Brian. The obelisk in St Peter's Square: an Egyptian artefact lifted from Heliopolis, by the Roman emperor Caligula. Sanctified, it is said, by a fragment of the true cross somewhere on top. Funny thing, belief.

Metro back to Spagna, and the famed Spanish Steps. Which turn out to be just awful: thronged by tourists just like us, and the church above under renovation and scaffolding. Which latter would not be so bad if a massive Rolex ad had not been plastered all across it. It is the usual fashion now to drape such work with a trompe l'oeil wrapping which replicates the facade of the building under restoration. It's just so tawdry having advertisements instead, so we leave in disgust.

Which is only heightened when, one crowded tube trip of a single stop later, we alight to realise M's bag has been sliced, in an abortive attempt to get inside. Nothing lost, and nothing of value there anyway. But it does mean a hurried replacement bag shop, and a nasty taste left. Lack of civitas, you see. Kiwis do not easily get used to seeing themselves others can see them - as prey - and our inclination to see the best in people makes us targets. But why live this way - having to constantly scan for the predators? Still, as one of the untouched souvenirs in the bag is a pair of St Christopher medallions, we allow ourselves a superstitious and perhaps smug thought, that the thieving insects didn't realise what they were up against.

We retire, a little disillusioned, to our round-the-corner ristorante, where we are greeted like old friends and set up for another glorious meal. But the wary feeling remains somewhat, and at Stazione Termini the next morning, we see a number of pickpockets cruising. Funny thing is, a high percentage wear white trainers. Everyone has their uniform, it seems. And we have boned up on the polite and cruder forms of 'Go Away' and are happy to practise them on these low-lifes while waiting for our InterCity to Firenze.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Rome sights - Day 17

We are not about to tour sitting down today, so walk everywhere. Down to the Colosseum first, join a tour which is well worth the money, and then just wander. The Colosseum is still an amazing piece of engineering in stone, although like most of Rome, it is inadequately conserved, has little interpretative signage, is dirty and desperately needs the equivalent of the British National Trust and Heritage lottery money. Or just stop outsourcing the guding business, put things under one umbrella, and take a bigger clip of the tourist ticket for the work. But I suppose Rome has just so much heritage that knowing where to start must be quite an issue.

We wander up onto the Palatine Hill, where there are stunning views back over the Colosseum, the Forum and the ancient apartments and districts which surrounded them. Again, a distressing lack of maintenance: the gardens at the top are unkempt, littered, and signage, even of exits, is absent. But as the entire hill is a honeycomb of ruins, again, where to start? Still, cutting the grass and tending the plants do seem obvious jobs.

Down the (unmarked) back end of the Palatine, on past the Circus Maximus. Formerly Imperials Rome's chariot racetrack, it is now a jogging circuit! On to the River Tiber, which is flowing strong and dirty. We cross at Ponte Palatino, and go back over the pretty little twin-bridged Isola (Island) which houses - what else in Rome? - a church, a ristorante and a souvenir shop. Back up to the Campidoglio - a musuem and Government complex with beautiful facades and statues. Then nip around the back to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which has to be simply the most expansive and impressive memorial of this sort ever built. Trajan's Column off to one side. Photos ensue.

Caffeine deprivation starts to set in: we've had an indifferent pizza at the foot of Palatine to keep us going. Off in the general direction of the Trevi Fountain, picking the less travelled little streets. Arrive at a high-level entrance, and are amazed to realise that the Fountain is actually the front of an inhabited apartment block! You'd need a strong bladder to live there....

The Trevi was very controversial when built: it is scuplted as if from living rock. A glorious spectacle, once you subtract the touts, crowds and the inevitable graffiti, litter and general Roman lack of maintenance. We slip away in search of caffeine, but pick the Quirinale Hill to go over - a solid Government and Police/Defence block, it seems. So no coffee houses. We cut down through the Gardens, off the hill, onto Via Nazionale - a main drag with lots of shops, and have a very satisfactory fresh orange, and a cappo. Equilibrium is restored. There are glamorous Italian types all along this street, and a lot of clothing stores. Interesting to observe the fashions and take the odd photo of accessories and other useful bits.

Back over to the hotel area which is actually situated in a quite good area. Lonely Planet, sharpen up your locality descriptions! Theatre and Opera houses very close by, and a fascinating clutch of religious articles shops around the back of the former. We consider a Marian statue for the hall back home. Then look at the price. Around 1000 Euros... Nah. Thought the Church had stopped profiting from this sort of stuff.

We do however see, in a cheaper but similar shop, a glow-in-the-dark Joseph, Mary and kid statuette series, which prompts a small reminiscence from M:

"I don't mind if it rains or freezes
As long as I've got my plastic Jesus
My plastic Jesus on the dashboard of my car..."

We also discover an Internet cafe close by the hotel, so now have a place to post all of this....and to find ourselves a hotel in Firenze - Florence. We are rather last-minute, don't-plan-it-to-death folk, as might by now be apparent.

Both Glorious Ruin'ed out for the day, to the extent that choosing another ristorante is just too much. And it's just around the corner. And they don't laugh at our Italian: we've got a few words, and have found that, used judiciously, people appreciate the effort with a quick smile. Asking for a new word always goes down well too.

Although we don't ask for a translation of "Casa del Pudenzia", a sign just one street back from our hotel. It probably doesn't mean House of Puddings. Perhaps Lonely Planet was right, after all?

Rome - Day 16

The Easyjet flight has no hand baggage weight restriction, thank goodness. And is not very full, so we bag a window seat forard of the engines. It's a clear day, and the plane takes off westwards, circles over the Avon mouth, and describes a slow circle back up the Severn, crossing the Channel over Portsmouth. Then the cloud sets in a bit so I turn attention to figuring out where the hotel is. No luck: we isolate the general area, look in Lonely Planet, to discover that said area is the rough side of town, allegedly. Oops.

Off the plane and through the laughably absent border control. No luggage checks, Britain does not know that we even left, and we walk straight from a perfunctory passport check at Ciampino Airport, to the public land-side area. The 'something to declare' Customs lane is taped off. And bio-security aspects are confined to warning signs... There is a sole police officer with a machinegun. But the whole EU border control stuff is just daft in these times.

We catch a Terravision bus to the main train station (Termini), orient ourselves once we find the station itself, and immediately buy a Central Rome detailed map. Find our hotel street (Via Ruinaglia, which is just off a main drag, Via Cavour) and start walking. It's only 600m or so, but streets change names over major intersections, or are blocked off. Eventually we find the hotel, which turns out to be very well appointed for just 2 stars. Thanks, LastMinute.

The proprietor teaches me enough Italian to get by over the next couple of days, and recommends a ristorante just around the corner. As we have not eaten since breakfast, this works out very well. Good pasta, a quaffable red wine, and gelato. We retire happy, satisfied, and are lulled to sleep by the gentle rumble of the Linea Blue Metro (tube) trains which pass right under the hotel. Well, it is a 2 star...

Bristol Airport - Day 16

Trev runs us up to Bristol airport over the Mendip Hills - not that you'd actually spot them as such. We vsee them from the air later, and they are more like a limestone ridge. Down through Burrington Combe - a little gorge through the limestone cliffs. Gorge is a relative term: nothing to compare with say Arthur's pass and the Otira Gorge, but wild in a very British way. Complete with caves - the endearingly named Wookey Hole is hereabouts.

Bristol Airport itself sports a new and impressive terminal: pipe space-frame construction with big, airy lounges underneath. A lot of the budget airlines fly out of here: to New York, Dublin and of course the Continent. So a lot of activity. We're on EasyJet - 35 quid each to Rome. Even allowing for the dreadful exchange rate of the NZ Peso to the Pound, this is very cheap.

Devon Coast - Day 15

A family lunch at West Bay, just down from Bridport on the Devon coast. Jurassic fossil cliffs east and west of the town, and the restaurant has a great outlook over a river mouth, and the enclosed harbour beyond. Superb seafood: we have both revised our rather dim former view of Brit cooking on this trip: there is a pride in the locality and freshness of the food all through the South-west, from Cornish clotted cream to the local seafood, caught by small boats which sail straight out of the port in front of us at West Bay. New Zealand white wine arrives! Cat's pee on a gooseberry bush - a great accompaniment to the seafood.

A wander along the promenade to the western end cliffs - fossil territory, and we can see Lyme Regis to the west. Then back via a B-road overlook onto the back of Portland Bill and Chesil beach, which former we had seen close-up a few days ago. Then back through the B-roads (no lanes, oh no) and do the usual dump of the camera photos, and another write-up. It's been a classic day weather-wise again, and we can't really believe it's Rome in less than 24 hours.

Somerset - Day 14

Have to drop the renter back at Marksbury, just out of Bath, so we have a Bristol, Bath and Avon day. Trev takes us on from the Europcar dropoff, out to the Avonmouth area and we see the Second Severn Crossing bridge from Bristol to Wales - very graceful, and with surprisingly little development along the Severn Estuary edge - it is, after all, a water view. On to Bristol centre via Whiteladies road - a coffee-up and then on to Bath. We skirt around the top of Bath and, consulting a local map, discover that the famed Crescent is just three streets down.

The Crescent, while undeniably magnificent, is rather too severely formal for my tastes, but the Circus, a circular (of course) road just hard by, is charming and more intimate in its scale of buildings. The Bath stone is just glowing in this afternoon sun, and the weather is once again brilliant for this time of year. We go back through Bradford-on-Avon, the Kennet and Avon canal, and on through the lanes to Wincanton. A cruisy, magnificent day. Photos of ancient ancestors that night: we have scanned a bunch for Trev and go through these. The Peter Lehmann shiraz goes down, and we retire tired but happy. With cats, who have discovered our various possum/merino clothing pieces, and won't be moved from on them.

Cornwall - Devon - Somerset, Day 13

Up the A39 all the way up Cornwall, round the top of Devon, then cut across from Minehead to Taunton and on into deepest ZumerZet. A rainy, foggy day, so limited sightseeing. Lunch in Bude, a surfing and market town, where we pick up a very nice Peter Lehmann shiraz for 5 quid at the Co-op! Then up across Exmoor - which has lovely architecture in the town at Lynton - almost German.

Taunton is a traffic nightmare: the Brit penchant for stacking up closely spaced roundabouts, lights and (the crowning engineering glory) roundabouts with lights, which all jam up solid at the least provocation, is the cause. But then it's on to dual carrigaeway in the A303, sixth gear is engaged, and we make our destination (Wincanton) in good time.

Harbours and Mines - Cornwall - Day 12

We zip over the hill to Penzance, and immediately are drawn into the classic Cornish landscape: heathy hill with roofless engine house and chimney stack. Cripplesease, if memory serves. Penzance it is, and Newlyn just around the corner. Being on the sheltered side, the harbours in these two towns house the remnants of the Cornish fishing industry. Charming and a little sad. On round the corner to Mousehole (Mowzel) of book fame. Mowzel harbour's tiny entrance is boarded up for the winter, although this hasn't stopped the recent Channel storm from filling the harbour with quite a bit of weed. A bendy fish purchase - a toy/artwork that just glowed at us from the shelf.

Back to Newlyn and Penlee House for Cornish history and art: another find on the artistic front: Charles Simpson, especially the sea-bird paintings, especially the gouache and watercolours. Penlee house has a very good potted history of Cornwall: a very old region with a rich archaeological heritage and the exhibits were succinct, informative and just very well done. So many musuems succumb to the dumbing-down of such sequences, either for the perhaps laudable objective of appealing to school parties, but usually (one suspects) because of a jaundiced view of the average punter's IQ and attention span. Not Penlee. Thoroughly recommended.

On to Pendeen and the mines section. The weather is by now closing in, and so straight to the National Trust restored beam engine at Levant. Just after a school party has gone, mid-afternoon. The resident custodian tells me that the place is actually closed, but that the engine-house is open. I have a little wander round - a typical mining layout with a skip shaft for ore and tailings, a miner's ladder which goes down 320 fathoms - that's almost 2000 feet... and the beam engine itself which wound the cars up and down the skip shaft. The miners had a man-engine - a moving beam which lifted them 10-12 feet at a time - but that went down only 266 fathoms and the rest - around 400 feet - was climb the ladders. And all on your own time, in the dark...

After 15 minutes or so, the custodian comes in to see that I haven't fallen down a shaft, and then says that there's still 70 psi in the boiler, and maybe he can run up the beam engine. Why not? He unlocks the regulator, and after a little bit of coaxing (while the vacuum in the unused part of the cylinder builds up and helps things) the 1840 Cornish Beam engine spins up to full tilt of 60 rpm or so. Very quiet, unfussed, and that magic smell of steam and oil. After 5 minutes or so, steam pressure is dropping so my private show runs down quietly and he packs it away, stopping it at exactly the right spot to get it started again tomorrow. The flywheel is well out of true, relic of an 1860 accident where the unregulated engine spun out of control and fired the 14 foot diameter wheel, in several pieces, through the top of the engine house, and was subsequently repaired and ran on until 1930.

The mine itself ran out 1.25 miles under the Atlantic, was around 320 fathoms deep (1 fathom = 6 feet) and the main tramming level, which took out the ore in mine tubs, was around 240 fathoms. Staffed by 400 men, boys and pit ponies for the tramming, that far under the sea. Climbing ladders in the dark after a shift, picking out the rich but narrow ore veins by hand (hence the boys, who fit into narrower spaces) and denuding Cornwall of trees for pit props.

Tin/copper (indeed, all) mining was and is a notoriously boom and bust business, and the reason for all those glorious engine house remains everywhere in the mineral belt, is that the boom collapsed suddenly. Gold rushes in New Zealand and California mopped up a lot of the resulting miner diaspora, and Cornwall now remains unmined, full of gently decaying relics, still with very few trees, but an utterly ancient, bony, enduring landscape.

Back on the B-for Back road to St Ives, and through one of the ancient standing-stones areas around Zennor (love the names). Only 9 miles, but through these old, narrow lanes, it feels like 20. Road, as usual, goes through the middle of farmyards, abhors straightness (only the Romans did straight, it seems), and varies from 10 to 25 feet wide, between little stone walls. No place to pass, sight-see or daydream while driving. Love every second of this sort of travel.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mugged in St Ives - Day 11

Yes, a mugging. In deepest Cornwall. By a large seagull, of my almost-entire genuine award-winning Cornish pasty. We had a day mooching round St Ives: photos, much walking, Tate St Ives, and shopping through the galleries. Which galleries, St Ives being a notable artists' haunt for over 100 years, could be said to infest the place.

The Tate was frankly a disappointment: artists-in-residence contributed the bulk of the work, and whatever their blurbs, words and justifications, there was just too much puffery and not enough apparent skill for our tastes. But a find: as there always is. Alfred Wallis - a retired fisherman and self-taught painter. A child-like style, no perspective, painted in household paints on odds and ends of flat surfaces. But it spoke to us, loudly.

A beautiful day here: after a little morning rain and a brief shower of hail. Everywhere, old people were sunning themselves like lizards on rocks. The light, renowned for its quality for artistic endeavours, was there as advertised. The layout of the town prevents much traffic: there is park-and-ride at the top of the downs above the town. Some of the little connecting passageways between the already narrow streets are only 2 feet wide. So it's a very intimate little place, at least in the older parts, and this has certainly helped the artist community. Some names: Bernard Leach, pottery, and Barbara Hepworth, sculpture.

n early evening beer and meal at the Sloop Inn - Circa 1312. Welll, some of it, anyway - the walls, maybe. The rest is Grandpa's axe: three new heads and seven new handles. But good beer, dogs allowed in the bar - how civilised... - and a great cod/parmesan/salad.

Weymouth to St Ives - Day 10

A spot of Internetting at a local cafe to get e-mails and some work away. Then out of the town and onto the A roads - which are slow, clogged, and wend through delightful Devon villages. Devon is such typically English countryside - rolling hills, the odd escarpment, and the odd moorland for relief. We pop in to Lyme Regis for a fossil or two: Mary Anning, the 18th century lady who had a knack for seeing fossils where everyone else had just seen rocks, made the place famous. And the Old Forge Fossil Shop has Madeleine Peyroux on the shop stereo. So we linger.

Those little villages may be photogenic and quaint but are hell on wheel to get through. Muttering Bah! and Humbug! we head for the nearest dual carriageway in sight, as the weather is closing in and it is a reasonable hop over to St Ives. The average speed rises satisfactorily, as yet again, despite a 70mph alleged limit on the motorways, the fast lane averages 80mph and our trusty 4 miles per inch map shows the location of every fixed speed camera. And the weather being what it is, there are no mobile cameras needed: the state of the road surface and natural caution act to limit speeds.

Then westward ho! Weather is now vile, so it's hammer down, traffic and road surface permitting. Make St Ives late afternoon, and are immediately captivated. Beautiful working harbour, and mediaeval fishing village streets. We ask around and select a family-run hotel up above the town with a great sea view. Mad has the knack for nosing out the right deal and right proprietor: some we have asked, just don't seem interested in making a sale. The service mentality in Britain is decidedly patchy..... We settle in, find our way down to the harbour and pick a restaurant. It's closed! Of course: even though it's picth dark, intermittently raining, the time is only 5.15pm... We walk around the harbour, explore one or two of the better-lit alley streets, and have a genuine Cornish pizza, Spanish and Italian beers. Find our way back up the hill to the hotel - not easy in these little, narrow winding streets, and watch an Irish race-totalisator programmer win 2005 MasterMind.

South Coast - Day 9

We check out, and head west along the coast. Which is built up right along: a working port just west of Hove, then Brit suburban housing and the occasional resort. We stop at one (Worthing) which has actual baches in one little corner. Photographic evidence ensues. At Worthing itself, a major apartment block has started: a graceful design which mixes Victorian and Art Deco elements. At least, that's what the pictures on the fence imply. Still boulder beaches on this stretch of coast, and groynes every couple of chains, to stop the longshore drift of their precious sand, where it exists. A beautiful sunny morning, dogs and people out walking. Another beach stop at Bognor Regis (with a name like that, had to do it). But here's the funny thing: we are now both completely unable to recall anyhting about Bognor Regis! Must be something in the water.

Needing to make some time, we head inland, hit the fast roads, and head to Portsmouth - a landmark port and still very much part of the British Navy. Not wanting to spend time and money at the usual tourist traps, we head for the fortified harbour entrance, and walk around the elaborate, ancient defensive towers, moats, walls. Recently restored and connected (another millenium project), with good interpretative signs.

The sheer energy that went into these things amazes us: it's really no wonder that the combination of industrial invention and the ending of long-running territorial disputes and political convulsions, released so much human and intellectual energy for what we now call the Industrial Revolution.

Back out to the A-roads, and head through the New Forest. Stop off at an Otter and Owl centre, and see owls up close for the first time. Such impassive, gorgeous creatures. A fox, too: so photos which we can associate with our Hugh St fox.

The entire South-west of England has had much rain, and there is a bridge out on our chosen A-road through the New Forest to Christchurch. The detours around take us on to a wilder, B road sector, and a sequence of little villages. Complete with beautifully thatched roofs, winding, narrow lanes, and a combination of forest and moor. Just a delight, but no photo stops - there's a lot of traffic, and almost no stopping places. One moor photo only.

Christchurch is supposed to be a charming place, but we manage to miss that entirely. We plough on through Poole, and then swing on south to Weymouth. We had planned to stay at either Swanage, Weymouth or Portland, but Swanage seemed too far east. We fall immediately for Weymouth: it is a traditional holiday resort town, charming river harbour complete with lifting bridge and defensive fort at the mouth. But I have to see Portland too. Portland is a massive chunk of limestone, vaguely connected to the mainland via a stony spit - longshore drift from Chesil Beach has connected what surely was formerly the island of Portland. We drive through Portland itself, then up and over through Easton, and down to Portland Bill - the southernmost point. There's a famous tidal race off Portland Bill, well known to mariners as a danger spot, and when we get there, the race is running at full strength. A confused, jumbly sea, vicious choppy waves, and a strong but mixed-up set of currents. A death spot for sailing ships of yore.

But Portland itself has been heavily quarried (Portland Cement...) and there is a devastated, sullen feel to the place, as so often happens in over-exploited areas. We abandon any thought of staying there, and head back through late afternoon traffic to Weymouth, and locate a charming beachfront hotel for the right price, with parking, at the second attempt.

The centre of Weymouth has tiny, mediaeval streets, but fortunately, on a grid pattern, so is easy to navigate. Our hotel owner confirms our feeling about Portland: she says some people have never left the island! We have a great, budget blowing meal at Mallam's, with quite the best pinot gris I've ever tasted. River and working boats view. The boats are very bluff-bowed, with wheel-houses well forard, and their windows just peeking over the bows. Obviously needed for punching through the steep, confused chops of the English Channel, which, after all, is not very deep, has a pronounced tidal race, is a wind funnel, so generates bad seas at the drop of a hat. Weave back to the hotel, well satisfied.

Brighton Piers - Day 8

We head for the sea-front, along with half of London, it seems. Just by the West Pier wreck, there's parking in a little square which we promptly snaffle. There's a strong onshore wind - around Beaufort 6-7 - mucho surf, and spectacular waves. The west End pier is a poignant iron skeleton, bits drop off every storm, we are told, and the main causeway back to the beach is long gone - a twisted mass of ironwork being moved up the beach with every storm. We walk up the beach boardwalk to the main Pier.

Which is endearingly tacky - Brighton Rock, souvenirs, restaurants, bars, pokies, and the amusement park right at the far end. Today's weather being of the horizontal variety, nothing is well patronised. The storm is sending gentle shudders through the Pier, and it really is very wet. And we haven't eaten since breakfast, some 6 hours ago. Having spotted a little cafe on terra firma, tucked under the main beach promenade, just adjacent to the main Pier, we retire there and have a superb late lunch.

And a Becks. And a Leffe. And then decide, WTF, let's stay in Brighton instead of braving the traffic, the dark (it's now 3.30 pm and a Dark and Stormy Night is imminent) and trying to locate a hotel. So back to the car in the Square, where we had previously spotted a little hotel a few doors down from our parking spot. Vacancies, check. Price right, check. Evening meal not required, check. Conti breakfast included, check. Serendipity has struck again.

Beachfront architecture varies from the delightful DeVere Hotel - very Victorian and lacy, to the stolidly monumental Brighton Centre, apparently designed in Stalingrad. Sea views sell rooms, and the seafront is 5-6 storeys solid as far as we can see (not far, in these conditions). Lots of public art, including a graceful bronze vertical doughnut near the end of a massively constructed stone groyne just by our late-lunch restaurant. Every few waves or so, a rather larger wave swamps the groyne end, drenching unwary punters, and coming right through the hole in the doughnut. Kinetic art......

We see one brave soul in jandals, shorts and t-shirt, but most people are layered underneath and wearing rain-shells on top like us. And we see a couple of younger kids racing the waves up and down the beach. Which, considering the surf - 2-4 metres - the fact that it's a boulder beach lying at a fair angle to the horizontal, with small, slippery stones underfoot, dumper waves, a vicious undertow, and a good-size Channel storm raging out there, does seem to us to be the height of foolishness. We blame the parents, of course. Where's Nanny State when you really need her?

London to Brighton Rally - Day 8

We pick up our car just around the corner (another of the real advantages of staying near a major rail hub) - it's a 6-speed VW 1.6 Golf with only 400 miles on the clock. Well, that's gonna change. But first, to get out of London. Vauxhall Bridge and then the A23 all the way, the Europcar staffer had said. So we do. But lo and behold, the Brighton Vintage rally is also on, the same route, lots of supporters..... So we kick back and cruise: no choice, really. Once we hit Brixton (for the second time actually, couldn't believe we were on the right road the first...) it's second gear mostly, but the occasional sprint in third. That, for the observant, is only half the gears available....

Once out of London (which took about 1.5 hours) we hit the M23 and can let the higher gears sing. By now the weather has closed right in and it's raining hard. Still, the fast-lane cohort which now includes us, zings along at 75-90 mph. The Golf is a joy to drive, handles well, 3500rpm at 80 mph in sixth. Noticeable that mainly the Euro cars are doing this speed: Audi, lots of VW, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, occasional Merc and Beemers.

The Brit cars are of course the 1903 vintage rally jobs, trundling along in the slow lane. A marvellous selection of very early contraptions: some quite literally carriages derived from horse-drawn technology, with a motor tacked on. And given the conditions (much moisture), a lot of drop-outs along the way.

All too soon, the M23 gives way to an A-road, sixth gear is a fond memory, and we proceed into Brighton at a sedate pace. The jalopies are using the bus lane, so we see quite a lot of the ones which have survived the rather Darwinian trip. The drivers and passengers have rugged-up for the conditions, but there are some quite bedraggled looking souls aboard.

London Guy Fawkes - day 7

We do a bit of Web sleuthing (free wi-fi at the hotel, although frankly you gets what you pays for - it's intermittent and dodgy), and pick up a car for the South Coast to Cornwall leg, next week. Then off to the Musuems again, thus time with a card in the camera..... But first a leetle snack at Harrods, just by the gloriously over-the-top Egyptian Escalator. Serenaded by live orchestra and operatic selections from somewhere on a lower floor, which echoes up the escalator. Then light a candle at Brompton Oratory, and back to Natural History. Photos of the dinos, the terracota, and the main Hall.

We've been invited out to a North London address for fireworks and a Greek meal, so off we toddle to Finsbury Park via Victoria tube. And then the fun really starts. We buy Brit Rail tickets for Palmers Green, and wait an hour for the train. Serenaded by evening prayers from the now notorious Finsbury Park Mosque. The platform fills up, fills up more, we look at each other and wonder when it will stop. It doesn't. There is a lot of Arsenal merchanise being worn or toted - we have struck a football match buildup.... Train arrives and the entire platform (now full of football fans) tries to squeeze in. We're literally hanging out the doors (we haven't developed that London pushiness), and no amount of 'move on down the coach' will actually let more people on. So we drop off. Bloody Arsenal supporters.....

We catch a bus instead - the Oyster cards work on these too, it seems. The bus (surprise, surprise) is defective. Every couple of stops or so, the low-air warning sounds, the driver, worried about running out of brakes, stops to rev the motor to build up the air pressure again. Just for comic relief, the motor actually stops twice. We take ages to get to - Wood Green! But the destination sign had clearly said Palmers Green..... We are three stops short of where we need to be. Still, we have seen a cross-section of surface London we wouldn't normally have seen. Or now ever wish to see again.

So another bus, and we are there. A charming house, a great Greek meal, and being at some altitude, we hear Guys Fawkes celebrations across London. If a revolution needed to get rolling, this would be the night to do it: no amount of noise you made would be even faintly noticeable against the barrage of fireworks from 8 to late.

Trip home is by contrast a cakewalk: Piccadilly tube from Arnos Grove to Finsbury Park, walk across the platform to the Victoria line tube, and home to Victoria, all within 30 minutes. The trip out had taken 90. We are left with unused Brit Rail tickets. Consider a refund, but the need to take a number, queue, explain the situation to your average Brit Rail staffer, and go out of our way to do all this - nah. Only 14 quid. Life's too short. Chalk it up to experience.

Birmingham and Paris - Day 4/5

Later, a work trip to Birmingham: nice quick trip out of Euston on a fast train. Birmingham is a deeply unlovely city with a pronounced oik culture, but has a central canal system and some canalside restaurants which possess that old water-view magic. I have a mussels dish, they turn out to be the smallest shellfish imaginable: obviously no minimum size limit here. Or perhaps they just dredge them straight out of the canal....

A day at a user conference, and a return trip to London the next day. Which is very slow, because of 'extensive vandalism to West Midland rail signalling systems' as announced on the Virgin train itself. Funny, no mention of that in the papers the next day. At around the same time, the Mad side is on a day trip to Paris, where there is 'extensive rioting in the north-eastern suburbs'. Funny, played-down in the papers. Seems to be a pattern here - Don't Scare the Horses....or Sheep.

We have detected a funny tipping-point this trip: the welfare/nanny state, both in France and England, seems to be running out of gas. Expectations of entitlement amongst parts of the population are widespread and high. Tax revenues to support these are static or declining. Part of the population thus affected consists of 15-30 year old males, with no jobs, no prospects and no status. That's always a recipe for unrest, and frankly it seems to have started. The State in each country is vacillating between soothing noises and fierce actions to restore control, both of which simply act to increase the alienation quotient. Intellectually, neither State has any answers beyond more of the same, appeasements of various sorts, and public hand-wringing. In both countries, we feel a darker, bleaker future blowing in.

Museum Strip and Brompton Oratory - Day 3

We had planned to see Natural History, and to look inside the Oratory - the Roman Catholic Cathedral for London. Natural History is an absolutely glorious building: sandstone and blue colour stone, terracotta tiling and ornamentation inside, over an iron frame. Huge, too. The Diplodocus replica skeleton inside is 100 years old, and the dinosaurs display is fairly much compulsory to kids of all ages. So around we go, and love it. The Earth Science wing also gets a look in: very good earthquake and volcano displays. Very interactive and geared for school visits, but one of the better ones we have seen - plenty for adults as well.

Brompton Oratory is plain on the outside, but Spanish-style ornate on the inside. We walk in on the tail-end of a mid-day Mass, which has a good following of the faithful. The Piccadilly Tube underneath echoes through the interior somewhat, which does rather reduce the ambience.

Tailpiece - Reynard the Fox - Day 2

Thomas Bewick, the renowned 17th century woodcut artist, used to illustrate his work with a tailpiece - a small woodcut of a fanciful, solemn or amusing scene. Coming back from Victoria station to our new digs (we have returned to the Cheviot after extracting a tarriff concession), we have our own tail-piece to the day.

We are astounded to see a fox walking down Hugh Street - literally one block from Victoria Station. It's clearly a local: walking happily along the pavement, not very many people around, slipping quickly around the corner to the next stop. Which may, we surmise, be Eccleston Square. Where there's one fox, there's another, and after asking around, urban foxes do seem to be a common sight. No photos, but it does induce us to see a country sanctuary for otters, owls and foxes in the New Forest - later on in the week.

Abbey and Tate Modern - Day 2

Did the verger-guided tour round Westminster Abbey with a quinessentially English guide: who turned out to be a hotel manager in a former life. Abbey is chocka with tombs, history, and the depredations of generations of pilgrims, as witness the decoration still extant above outstretched arm height. Glorious architecure as always.

On to Tate Modern across the Millenium Bridge - bit of a disappointment, really. Displays are changing, exhibitions not really ready, and the Turbine Hall exhibit was (can't make this up...) stacks of polystrene packing cubes. Pish and tosh. An Henri Rousseau exhibition was coming, but then, we were going. Went through the exhibits (modern nude etc) but they were a bit patchy. One very amusing Rube Goldberg-style machine. Not a great haul. But great views of that classic London skyline from a viewing gallery, so photos and a walk back over that now somewhat slippery Millenium bridge.

Friday, November 04, 2005

London - Madeleine Peyroux

We snatch a couple of hour's worth of zee's and toddle up to the Barbican via Victoria and District tubes, and have a very well constructed salad. Then, fighting off jet-lag, stagger into our assigned seats. Which are - praise the InterWeb and ticket scalpers! - in the front row, centre stage. That's approximately 4 metres from the singer.

Who (the supporting act is entirely forgettable) is fabulous. Troubled (read the Grauniad piece), but fabulous. A great keyboards man, complete with vintage electronic organ and Leslie speaker, horn player, violinist, bass and drums as backing. Very quiet, intensely swinging jazz feel. Superb vocals from Miss Peyroux, and most songs are from the latest album (Careless Love). She does sound as though she has lived it all. A simply gorgeous night. Peak experience. We miss all the names of the backing group (announced last, obscured by foldback speaker noise plus audience wild applause throughout). Look for reviews but nothing sensible as yet.

Back via District Tube (how quickly the old patterns like Tube station sequences reassert themselves!). Ecstasy. The feeling, not the pill.

London - day 1 2005

In on the early flight - quick trip through what is laughingly referred to as Border Control - and on to the Piccadilly line after a bus transfer (they are making Terminal 5 at present, so according to hallowed Brit engineering tradition, have entirely dug up Terminal 4 Tube access), change at Hammersmith to District line, and on to our fleapit hotel. Quick shower, then onwards and upwards! London beckons. Specifically, Tate British and the Turner prize entrants.

Tate British also has a Degas - Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, so we buy a joint ticket and brave the Turner entrants first. Four entrants, but only two worthy of the name: the other two encompass:

1. Simon Starling - yet another Installation - a charmingly decrepit German boatshed which was allegedly dismantled, made into a large canoe, paddled down the Rhine and thence as a dismantled stack of timber shipped to the Tate, reassembled as the boatshed. The 'art' in this journey rather escapes us, as the shed resembles a chicken coop on steroids. Or a Starling coop. It's endearingly dishevelled, but then so am I.

2. Darren Almond - a multiple-video presentation which tugs at the heartstrings via use of an elderly aunt's vist to the Blackpool of her youth and... that's it, actually. Quite weak, not a bad idea, poor execution. Thumbs down.

So the two real Turner contenders are (tada!):

- a clever installation of taped floor and painted found bird objects. Engaging, a Scottish artist (Jim Lambie), but specific to this place. Floor tape, in case you missed that.

- Gillian Carnegie (the one that deserves to win but probably won't. A painter! Just like Turner, no less. Just painting, No goofy commentary on the audio guide. No subtexts. No stupid captions. Just plain old skill, in a single, well chosen body of work. Including Bums paintings, always a personal favourite. And a gorgeous scuplted-black-paint woodland landscape, impassively titled 'Black Square' .. Cannot be photogrraphed - photos cannot pick up the 3-D aspect. Hooray!

But it probably won't win the Turner. Too little cleverness. Old JMW will revolve in his casket, but the chicken coop is our pick. The judges will admire the temporal nature, the metamorphosis, the zeitgeist and the frankfurter.

But we stand by our Black Square pick. Woodworm and the ever-alert cleaning crew will have disposed of the Starling coop long before Black Square bites the dust.

Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are good but patchy: many of these Paris artists had a very ambivalent view of their subjects, and as always, overt politics in art does not wear well. Likes: Bonnard (a radiant, sunny view of his women subjects), TL's sketches, which reveal his warped but very characteristic view of the world, and some of the Degas.

Exit stage left, into light rain, and a few z's before Madeleine Peyroux at the Barbican.

Friday, October 28, 2005

New links

(ht: PC) - Having linked Roger Sandall myself, delighted to discover a Keith Windschuttle site. Both are of the old pre-post-modernist school: one a retired anthropogist, the other a historian, with values which essentially rank truth above theory.

Sandall has no truck with multi-culturalism, having experienced far too many of its effects on the Far North Aboriginal communities in Australia.

Windschuttle has exposed many of the Aboriginal 'genocides' as fabrications in his recent works.

Both come across, from my reading of both their writings and Web sites, as decent and courageous souls. Decent, in the old sense of the word, means someone whose integrity is unquestioned, who can be relied upon, and who is not out for #1 at all costs.

An old-fashioned word, but one which is coming back into vogue, as people discover, for the umpteenth time (as in Gods of the Copybook Headings...), that, when all is said and done, an intelligent, courteous and moderate path along life's bumpy road, is something to aspire to.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Shock! Horror! Galloway lied!

(ht - Sir Humph's)

There was never much doubt that GG was guilty as charged - where there's smoke etc. But isn't it rather delicious to see the Times sidebar chronology on the topic when you look at the link?

May 17 2005 - Galloway attacks Senate for 'mother of all smokescreens'
May 18 2005 - Galloway is unrepentant as he attacks US senators
May 19 2005 - Hero's welcome for scourge of Senate
May 19 2005 - Galloway wins on points rather than knockout, says US
May 22 2005 - Gorgeous George batters Bush’s beautiful fairy tale
May 22 2005 - Focus: Zero to hero
Sep 14 2005 - The anti-war dream ticket: Gorgeous George and Hanoi Jane
Oct 25 2005 - US Senate 'finds Iraq oil cash in Galloway's wife's bank account'

Them old Greek furies strike again - confidence/pride/hubris/wild overextension/Nemesis.


Saturday, October 22, 2005

Back to Blighty

For a smaller jaunt this time: just 4 weeks, divided roughly into:

London, 1 long week - part work, part play, part Birmingham conference.
Cornwall and relatives in Somerset - 1 week
Northern Italy - 2 weeks. Got to get these time priorities right and these feel good.

Highlights to look forward to?

Madeleine Peyroux concert at the Barbican - lucked out finding the last 4 tickets in the world for this and between the InterWeb and Royal Mail - bought Sunday in Kent UK, in my hot grasping little hand at the other end of the earth (NZ) Friday - not a bad advertisement for global capitalism, eh? Show me a Gummint that could organise that (outside their secret three-letter agencies, natch).

Turner entrants will be there at Tate British - just down the road from our favoured lodgings area - and of course there will be an actual Turner (JMW) or two there too.

London Museum is just round the corner from the Barbican, so a coffe, meal (and as jetlag will be rampaging) perhaps a few zee's in a quiet corner. Just like the minimum-wage security guards these hapless shows seem to employ. The z's, not the coffee...

More National/Portrait Gallery viewing. We rather overlooked some gems here last time through.

Tate Modern - the displays will have altered, and of course there was that terrible incident where a cleaner mistook an exhibit for real rubbish. I seem to recall predicting this.......

The Kensington museums strip: Science, V&A, and Natural History. We never did get to the latter, so will remedy that this time. And walk back in the general direction of Harrod's and actually look inside the Brompton Oratory this time, to see what Nick Cave was on about (Boatman's Call).

And of course we will be staying only a few clicks away in Somerset from where the fabulous Ariel Atom is made: perhaps a short side trip to Crewkerne? One can dream....

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Diamond scratched

I thoroughly enjoyed Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel", although did think that his insistence on including New Guinea as a centre of civilisation was, how shall one put this, a little eccentric.

But for some reason I've never be able to bring myself to read his later effort "Collapse", mainly because the reviews were distinctly cold, and there seemed to be the curious twist of societies 'choosing' to go kersplonk.

Now Society is not an independently intelligent species: the phrase is, I believe, a reification:

To regard or treat (an abstraction) as if it had concrete or material existence

So choosing Collapse actually didn't happen in that sense. And, ferchrissake, using Easter Island as an example of said collapses must shurely be a whopping Hasty Overgeneralisation.

So I'm rather pleased to see one of my favourite pundits - Roger Sandall - have a scratch at Diamond. (hat tip to the skeptics) The core argument can easily be levelled much closer to home as well:

Just what was so special about that culture, compared to (oh, say) the Greeks?

The answer, of course, is "well, nothing".

Multiculti relativism love, civilisation 15.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

State of Fear

Ever since reading Michael Crighton's pot-boiler, then looking around me with a newly jaded eye, I have been very aware that cultivation of a state of fear is endemic amongst politicians of every hue. (The book itself is great on ideas but short on plot, characterisation etc - more a vehicle for the theme than anything else).

Now, here's a great article on the topic (ht: NBR).

We had a leetle instance of doom-mongering locally, just after the Boxing Day tsunami. Fortunately, with a little Internet and Companies Office searching, we came up with enough conflict-of-interest goodies to ensure that the perps enjoyed a torrid afternoon with their Chair, CEO and no doubt legal counsel as well.

And with a happy result: not one peep (at least in public) from said doom-monger ever since. And an amusing blog on the topic, over here.

The pitch against state-of-fear stuff is simple, but like the battered-wife syndrome, much easier to say than to do: You don't have to live this way.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Couple letters boint out in the sign

That's a fragment from a favourite Tom waits song: "A sweet little bullet from a pretty blue gun" - on Blue Valentines. The verse runs:

now there's a place off the drag called the Gilbert hotel
there's a couple letters boint (burned) out in the sign
and it's better than a bus stop
and they do good business every time it rains
for sweet little girls with nothing in their jeans
but sweet little wishes and pretty blue dreams

Well, that song is on the Muvo (think early, cheaper, less hip iPod) and got an airing on the flight over to Melbourne. And then I do my usual constitutional walk after dinner: the Ship Turning Basin on the Yarra, past the Crown Casino (with conspicuous consumption of gas every hour, on the hour, early evenings, to attract the punters with loud and flaming spectacle), on down the South Bank, over the Princess Bridge to Flinders St railway station. It is a marvellous sight, the old and new buildings lit up at night, reflecting on the river. Use of architectural lighting needs three things: a range of publicly accessible viewing points, plenty of strategically sited lights (doh!), and buildings which are sufficiently interesting to light in the first place. It certainly works for me in Melbourne.


Halfway around the walk, I look over the river, at the hotel I'm staying at. It has a large illuminated sign on top. But...

There's a Couple letters boint out in the sign!

Spooky, no?

I do the decent thing and leave a note for Maintenance with the front-desk crew when I get back.

Because, after all, 'Sweet little bullet' is a morality tale about the dangers of wandering around with 'sweet little dreams' in a fundamentally uncaring city. The chorus runs:

It takes a sweet little bullet from a pretty blue gun
to put those scarlet ribbons in your hair

Friday, September 30, 2005

Happiness through exercise of Intellect

Found this (circuitously) from Leighton Smith's well-organised web site (asp's, no less). The money quote (got to stop using that phrase - ed. OK, boss):

"If happiness comes from a sense of competence and efficacy, the welfare state is worse than a lottery. If the welfare state does what it is supposed to do, abolish problems and risks and guarantee a certain material result whatever we do, then it deprives us of many of our challenges and our responsibilities. That actions have consequences, both rewards and punishments, is not just good because it helps us make better decisions, it is also important because it gives us the sense of control. Without this direct feedback our sense of hopelessness and frustration grows."

Just wander to down the nearest ghetto Glorious State Housing area (if you dare) to get a taste of the aforesaid hopelessness and frustration.

And then move right along. Couldn't possibly be such a linkage. Nothing to see here. Glorious Leader has said so!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Fisking Nipper(t)

Matt Nippert is a young Lefty (what else?) journalist at the Listener and has an article in this weeks' issue. Fisking this is the old story - fish - barrel - shoot. But someone has to do it.

His Hitchens vs Galloway debate reportage seems to have been penned from the point of view of a fellow brawler.

The page was titled "Celebrity punch-up" Oh please.

The debate was like Margaret Atwood vs Pamela Andersen, held at Hooters. That is: a total mis-match, viewed from nothing but partisan seats. Far from 'meeting his match', as Nippert's sub-head has it, Hitchens outclassed both his opponent and the crowd.

Hitchens is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Monthly (a publication with rather discerning editorial tastes), has a long and erudite publication list, and has for most of his life been an ardent and articulate supporter of the Left. And that, rather than being a 'gung-ho ally of the neocons', Hitchens has been a long-time supporter of the Kurds, and has heavily critised aspects of the Iraq war.

Nippert could have reported, to balance the ledger, that George Galloway stands accused of Oil-for-Fraud bribes via the Mariam Appeal, has called for a jihad on British troops, and was expelled from the British Labour Party for that act. He could have reported that Galloway gained his Parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Oona King, a long-time critic of Saddam Hussein, partly by a populist appeal to local militant Islamists, but also by a whispering campaign against King based on her sex and her African/Jewish ethnicities.

In fact, Nippert would probably have been better to just point to this rather better article about the debate, from another Leftie but somewhat more well-regarded rag.

Instead of just apparently cutting and pasting the juicy bits.

In fact, he missed a nice ending quote from the Granuardi piece, so I'll do the honours:

"So it was left to the market to decide. A post-event book signing was convened and it was noticeable that the queue was almost twice as long to see Hitchens."

Germany, Canada and lil' ol' NZ.....

David Warren has another swipe at the management of long-term decline: the money quote:

"The SPD is to Germany as the Liberals to Canada: the party to manage national decline. The long-term success of each has depended on turning "voters" gradually into "clients". From the humblest welfare recipients, up to big businessmen whose fortunes depend on sweetheart regulatory arrangements, each party pitches itself, as crassly as necessary, to the beneficiaries of state largesse. Their supporters therefore become quite inured to massive corruption, and revelations of ineptitude -- and remain so, as long as they are guaranteed preferred access to the government trough.

The intention of such governments is not to run the economy into the ground, nor even to destroy the moral order through experiments in social engineering. That is simply the natural consequence of their way of doing business. "

Does this guy have Labour Party HQ miked and wire-tapped, or what?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

About that German election

As usual, Mark Steyn draws an apt analogy. Now consider our own fair situation once we hook up all those viable wombs hard-working families to the welfare teat of Nanny State carefully crafted policy of Working For Families.

Then ask them to vote.

Possibly for some party or other that proposes to wrench the teat away for the greater good or even just economic sustainability.

Ho hum, it's Tui time. Tax minimisation time, anyone? Vote-with-feet time? This whole election bribe is certainly a powerful perverse incentive to negative wealth generation.

Looks up, cups hands to industrially deaf ear, why, is that the sound of fiscal pigeons coming home to roost?

Listening to

As little TV and radio as possible. The shallowness of what passes for dear little NZ's public political commentary is just too much. The blogs, of course, rule as always. I tend to read financial papers' analyses (Australian Financial Review, Independent, Financial Times) to get a nuanced and intelligent picture.

Which is not looking too pretty, frankly; we are in for another three years of a redistributionist, lame-duck gummint about to encounter a perfect storm:

- Labour and its coalition partners (whoever they turn out to be, and for how long) are effectively shorn of a political mandate by the near-enough 50/50 split between social engineers of any breed and those interested in individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities. There will be considerable social resistance to further meddling, nanny-state-ing, and tribalism.

- And at the end of three long years (or maybe much sooner) Labour will lose office, for certain. Why?

- There is an economic storm brewing, composed of about equal parts external shocks (commodity prices, oil, energy) and internal mismanagement (energy and transport infrastructure provision, industrial relations expectations, welfare entitlement expectations), all considerably highlighted during the election campaign. These are not well managed by even conventional centre-right gummints, let alone leftish ones.

- The Minister of Finance is comprehensively discredited. Hid a bag of goodies under a Budget carpet, claimed they weren't there (oh, no room for Tax Cuts!) then flourished them with glee at key points during election campaigning. Financiers take a dim view of such obfustication. The MoF will have a long, torrid three years.

- Election bribes will cost dearly - Student Loans at 0% interest (you heard that right - and so has practically every arbitrageur in the First World) is costed by Treasury at close to $NZD1 billion.

- Existing financial cock-ups will cost more too: Kyoto was costed at roughly $USD15-20 per carbon tonne, but current world trading prices are close to twice that. So a $NZD 600m credit has turned into close to $NZD 2 billion debit. Funded by You Know Who.

- Turning working families into welfare beneficiaries is not going to do wonders for entrepreneurship or wealth generation generally. The signals are confused, and the deadweight inherent in getting, counting, redistributing taxes is considerable. And think of the stigma in waiting to apply for some of your own money back, in WINZ queues with hoodies, druggies, buskers and assorted rent-a-scum!

- There will be a vigourous, vocal and high-business-IQ Opposition snapping at the heels of every Gummint initiative, action, perk, slip-up, and SNAFU. The election campaign for the Centre-Right has effectively started now.

- The public at large has heard (if not acted on) a key message about tax - "Hey, that was My money first!" This will continue to grumble away in tax-payers' gizzards, and may have some surprising and unpleasant results during the term.

So after three inglorious years, during which time a fragile, electorally barely-sanctioned gummint muddles its lonely way through this swamp, all it will have to show for it is exhaustion, a more completely demonstrated lack of competence, an ecomony several clicks further down the OECD scale, and a greatly deepened resentment amongst voters. Who will then vote for? Anyone But Labour......

For a working example of what this looks like, read almost anything about Germany.

So even though I'm tempted to break out the 2005 Schadenfreude, I do have to remind myself that this is My country I'd be toasting.

So back to the title of this rant: I'm listening to Marta Topferova - Czech, gorgeous contralto voice, best harp playing I've heard in my life. And soon to be experienced with a replacement speaker set-up: budget price but decent sounds - KEF Q1's bookshelfs, and a little KEF PSW1000 subwoofer in the corner to round out the bass a bit. The great big ol' Infinity RS4001's move to the B speaker wires - they are sounding quite flat now.

A Czech, singing South American genres, in flawless Spanish. A telling line from one of the reviews: She is living proof that gaining a deep spiritual connection with a country and its music does not require hereditary ties .

Tell that to the new tribalists.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Metal in Melbourne

Back in the glorious city (and a great boutique hotel) for a whole week, in the implementation phase of a leetle project. Let no-one kid you: replacing a core system is like tuning a running engine: it's hard not to get your fingers in the fan. 'Nuff said, perhaps.

It struck me during one of my rambles around the Yarra and inner city, just how much metal is used in artworks here. There's the obvious arty steel rivetted cover on the freeway in, the artily angled steel close by and at the convention centre, the gorgeous bridges (currently being re-painted as part of the Games preparation). But a whole lot of less monumental artwork is all around, and a considerable proportion is metal.

Now obviously Oz is a mine and a beach, so one can expect a lot of familiarity with the raw material. And equally obviously, the attraction of metal in public pieces is resilience and strength: hard for your average vandal to make much of an impression on a 40mm steel plate compared to (say) a routed wooden sign. But there's a little more to it, perhaps.

It takes a good craft knowledge to actually do much with metal, and a certain apprenticeship. Unlike say painting, where the tray-and-roller school can be faked pretty convincingly after a quick trip to the DIY shop. And it takes capital plus confidence to start, too. Oz has a larrikin, confident edge to its persona, and that might help. But I can't help wondering if the great open spaces here do encourage a wider, larger, more full-blooded response to things, compared to the incestuous, walled-in, me-in-my-little-valley artistic hothouse flower one sees so much of in NZ?

(And which latter one does not encourage, might I add, by ever, ever buying the results. Give me technical mastery first, then design, execution, quirkiness. Then I just might buy. And if you ever write words in a painting, see me turn around and keep looking elsewhere. That's why we print books.)

Perhaps Oz metal art is like the CEO's preference for a corner office: the wider vision which gets stuff down, with the materials at hand?

And talking of corner offices, the new Eureka Apartments (554 apartments, 88 storeys, all corners, a blade shape, not imposing, more growing than being built out of the South Bank): a floor layout that sees every apartment at a corner? Amazing building: they are still building around floor 70 and up (central lift tower is at full design height of about 300m). The crane on top of the lift tower is lit at night: just think of how much you would want to be paid to go up the boom (it's a conventional angled jib) to change the flood if it went out.....

OK, so if words are out, my favourite painting?

J W M Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed: Great Western Railway. 1844.

National Gallery, London, last time I saw it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Monday, September 05, 2005

That ol' welfare state shtick...

This post linked by Bill Quick hisself, encapsulates all that is wrong with the welfare state. There have always been two broad ways to get something that you want: make it/make the money to buy it yourself; or just go and take it off someone else who has it, but cannot defend it. Guess which path the WS rewards?

Yup, it's the someone else's money/property every time. Never your own damn fault.

Polls, Katrina and Gaia

Great to hear the Colmar Brunton polls (insert usual caveats here) having National leading. On the Aged parents run last night, interesting to hear that THAT pamphlet (you know, the one that has the Greens running round in small circles bleating 'smear' while hastily cooking up a few of their own) has had an effect! I.e. the pamphlet has been read and taken to heart. And that Labour will be short at least one more AP vote...... Bwahahahaha!

Yes, I've put my money where my mouth is and contributed $US100 to the Sallies for Katrina relief. And logged that with NZ Bear. Do the same, why don't you.

The inevitable crap surfaces, linking Katrina with global warming, building on river deltas or under sea level, and similar statements of doom-mongering. Rather reminiscent of our own little bout of tsunami-related verbiage here in poor, tribal NZ. A certain elderly gay seagull has evidently squawked on about the local tsunami nonsense. Donald Sensing brings some balance to the overseas debate, and the crew at Tech Central Station are as usual onto it immediately with healthy doses of fact-based commentary.

Moral of the story is: those Civil Defence advices, about having 3 days worth of water, food, essential supplies and a way to heat stuff readily to hand in the home, are really pertinent. An SUV and a way of defending oneself aren't on the CD list, but maybe should be......

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reading Viewing Listening - Lists

Having been treated to a week in Melbourne on a project, caught the Dutch Masters exhibition at NGV. Highlights:

Not the Vermeer (sorry!) - it's about the size of an A4 page and is frankly better done in reproduction on the catalogue's cover.

The Rembrandts - expressive faces, a certain dash in the line.

The landscapes (so many!) - the big-sky genre is my favourite. Low horizon line, and clouds/light effects are beautifully done in the best renditions. Names: van Ruysdael, Hobbema, Pynacker, Moreelse (Girl in a Mirror, just to confound the list...)

Like most world class galleries, NGV has benefitted from bequests and trusts. An early straw stuck into the rich vein of gold-rush money continues to fund purchases, and there are many astounding private collections which have been donated.

Favourites here:

The Japanese woodblocks (Utamaro, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi) - a small selection from a vast store, including many early-impression prints (tend to be sharper)

Durer - NGV has a massive collection, a fraction of which is on display. Again, many early impressions, which are even more crucial in some of the printing techniques such as drypoint, where the plates very quickly lose definition.

Impressionists - including a favourite JWM Turner, whose late pieces (1840's) are forerunners of the movement as a whole - but a very good selection of Pissaro, Sisley, Manet and a thoughtful grouping overall.

As for most decent galleries, too much for a single visit: and we didn't hit the Federation Square site (Australian and Pacific art) - ran out of time.

Melbourne as always, delights with the architecture in the central city - try 333 Collins for a quick sample (outer suburbs and industrial areas are the standard blah) and in the better suburbs around South Melbourne. The obligatory Acland St (St Kilda) tram pilgrimage but (sniff) no gelato - closed up for winter. Come on, Green Apple, it's officially Spring!

And notwithstanding the multiculti ninnies' opinions on oppression, art, kultcha and so on ad infinitum, the things that stay around to evidence said kultcha tend to be (surprise!) great artworks, and architecture which has survived the Darwinian selection process. And, bow to the vanished Bamiyan Buddhas and British church decorations, survived various iconoclastic episodes.

Reading has tended to concentrate on heavy topics interspersed with light ent:


Winning the Oil endgame - a wonderful summary based on hard data and private initiative. Dedicated to the proposition that the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of rocks. And the price signals are going to really push this sort of thing: nice aspect is that no 'to-be-announced' technology is involved in Lovin's suggestions.

The Command of the Ocean - N A M Rodger. Hugely detailed and notable for the sidelights into social history, from a historian of the old, pre-we-are-all-evil-colonisers school. Another engrossing old fart, in other words.

Landscape and Memory
- Simon Schama. OK, cheating here, still reading it. Marvellous premise: that landscape is an artefact of human perception, and thus its depictions and commentary reflect the Zeitgeist - spirit of the times or age. Not forgetting the Weltanschauung - the world-view of the writer. How to tease these apart? That's a lifetime's work.

England- An Elegy - Roger Scruton. An unabashedly personal but deeply English book: he laments the loss of 'enchantment' as embodied in the rituals, clubs, brass bands, and generally bottom-up activities of Blighty As She Was. A quote (about church interiors) seems in order:

"That this [deep impression made on those who entered] had not come about without a painful history was evident from the very appearance of those quiet interiors. Iconoclasm and puritan vandalism had swept through these arches like a boiling tide through seashore caverns and, retreating, had left them bare. But you sensed too that the storms had passed, that the architecture was the purer and cleaner for the brutal torrent that had washed away its ornaments, and that the stunned tranquillity of those pitted walls would remain everlastingly."

Quite so. It echoes what we felt at those Evensongs - a quietitude which was the product of a turbulent yet burnishing history.

Light Ent:

Jasper Fforde: the Thursday Next series. Literary to a fault, Python meets Richard II meets Adams (Doug). It really does help (no plot giveaways here) to have actually read Jane Eyre. Great fun.

A Year in the Merde - funny and pertinent.

The Corrections
- Franzen. I almost never read a book which is too hot-right-now - I prefer to take my time and read it when the fuss has died down and a bit of history and sanity has intervened. Loved this: oddly uplifting given the subject matter.


Anything by Tom Waits: no,that's not a title. Look it up, you lazy sausages. I do think he needs to be listened to in order, to appreciate the transitions (say between Burma Shave - Foreign Affairs, to Gun Street Girl - Rain Dogs - to Another Man's Vine - Blood Money. And possibly not by youngsters - there is a cyclic element in Waits that demands a certain number of years under the belt. But of my own Desert Island Tracks on the Muvo, Waits owns a good chunk of the playlist.

Madeleine Peyroux - marvellous, old time jazz/blues crossover stuff. The earlier CD with her ex is thin and too much not-her.

Nick Cave - Boatman Calls and since. We have both found that the early tracks on Boatman have become strongly associated with England and our time in London, despite the fact that we heard NC for the first time well after the trip! This rather puts paid to the theory that smell is the organiser of memory. Must actually go inside Brompton Oratory the next trip.

Bob Dylan - early and late. The middle years are frankly forgettable. Another old codger getting better as he (and we) age(s).

Mile Davis - Kind of Blue. The cleaned-up version, from the tape recorder that wasn't running slow on the day. A true 20th century classic.

Here endeth today's Lists.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Gaia's revenge on Renewable Energy Policy

Not too long after our own little local 1-turbine Windy Power For the Masses experiment up on Gebbie's Pass was destroyed by a 'sudden change in wind direction', we hear of another Windy Irony.

As the inimitable Mark Steyn notes, who says Gaia doesn't have a sense of humour?

With a history like this, the insurance premiums on exposed turbine farms alone will be a significant chunk of operating expense. After all, it's like having a dam washed away...noooo - don't say that's happened too?

See this for a quick if irreverent survey of the current NZ state of play in Energy Policy.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A healthy (EU) Constitution

Telegraph | Opinion | A healthy Constitution is a succinct, pointed and thoroughly deserved riposte to the bloated, anti-democratic Pan-European effort termed the 'EU Constitution'. The old Constitution was decisively rejected by France and by Holland: this new effort should be the first of many alternative proposals. One detects the influence of the US Constitution, too, in the Telegraph's efforts - funny, that. After all, the US has been a democracy a couple of centuries longer than Germany, and substantially longer than France (where it took a good chunk of the 19th century to wriggle free of the Second Empire...). And it's (the Telegraph's effort) is - gasp - readable! The commoners will be able to understand it! Second gasp. Why, this will never do.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sigh - another blogger says it better (if with a Canuck accent...)

This post from the ever-readable Gods of the Copybook Headings blog, demonstrates yet again the universality of human nature, and the ultimate futility of governments 'trying to help'. While GCBH speaks to a Canadian context, the themes echo loudly down in this poor, increasingly tribal, and thoroughly victimology-friendly corner of the Pacific.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Belly laugh of the day

Dr Suarez has read of DAS SNOW BOOT: What will those nastily clever narco-traffickers be able to purchase next? Sure saves laundering money through lots and lots of little business fronts. The money quote:

"When you think about it, cocaine is really a pretty brilliant option for sub-mariners. Instead of sharing beds, they wouldn't fucking need them! Any smooth, horizontal surfaces would be kept impeccably clean. The preponderance of mirrors would encourage good hygene. The crew would avoid catching colds, given that one errant sneeze could cost them $1,500 on the open market."

But of course, here in li'l ol' NZ, home of the 6 Herky-bird Air Force (2 serviceable at any given time) and the proud frigate Canterbury to patrol the high seas - whoops, no, sorry, they are just about to sink that one somwhere in Cook Strait to provide Equitable Housing Outcomes for a bunch of green-lipped mussels - a drug cartel with a submarine would be detected........just how again?


The future of dead-tree publishing

Power Line, in a piece entitled: Robert Burns, call your office, has quoted what I think is the best-put, most succinct (always a desirable quality) yet forceful argument for the ascendancy of electronic publishing. MSM, with their ludicrous blend of rigidity, now-obvious bias, a pervasive animus to things Webby, and most embarrassingly, a rather visible lack of intellectual horsepower compared to their on-line nemeses, are in the cross hairs.

From my own reading patterns over the last three years or so, future media will concentrate on things very local; the penetrating and real-time analysis will be Web-based; thoughtful pieces in quality journals such as Atlantic Monthly will live on; and there will continue to be niche magazines, in fact ever nicher.

But as the Powerline piece notes, trying to cover all bases, as the dead-tree newspapers and general purpose magazines (like our own funny little Listeria, ht NZPundit) is a recipe for irrelevance.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Who'd a thunk it? Osama as apostate

On reading this, two phrases meandered across the frontal lobes (or was that the amigdila - the older, reptilian bit?).

Hoist by his own Petard
Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Whatever: the image of OBL as a religious outcast, condemned as such by Spanish Muslims, is certainly one to savour.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Innovation as the driver

This Arnold Kling article says in much better words what I have been thinking out loud about in a more stumbling way and with less articulate language. Combining known elements in unknown combinations is the real value-add. There are pointed side-swipes at governments and bureaucracies, too. Kewwl.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Alive in 2005

Some juicy new sites, especially for NZ readers who are currently being regaled with tales about the Wananga, and down the maw of which we currently tip NZD 0.25 Billion. Like most white folk, I have no particular issue with public money going to what Tom Wolfe characterised in 'Bonfire of the Vanities' as 'steam control'. Having a lot of poor, young males hanging about idle is a recipe for societal distress at the very least, as Lee Harris discusses.

Roger Sandall (author of "The Culture Cult") on his site has some very pithy things to say about this sort of misty-eyed hankering after imagined pasts. Mostly, when translated into current-context policy, these 'designer tribalism' ideas are a disaster in the long run, as they act to increase a sense of identity, but at the direct expense of involvement with and understanding of the wider society.

It's all too recognisable here in the Shaky Isles.