Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain

Things I like about Sydney No. 8: The Botanic Gardens Pt. 2

There are some things I see that I covet and want to own - things in the realm of affordable possibility like nineteenth-century photographs of men with moustaches, moomin mugs, or cases of taxidermy. There are other things I see which I covet even more but which I understand I will never own: a Leger painting for instance, or a tiger skin, or a triple-decker Thomas Hardy first edition, or Truman Capote's address book. Then there is a third category of things which I long to own but even with money I know it would be impossible: the autograph score of The Rite of Spring, all of Leighton House, and the entire Natural History Museum in Tring are all good instances. Finally, in my terribly covetous world, there are things which are so brilliant that owning them wouldn't be enough: I simply want to be them.

The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain falls into this category: I want to give up this Jonathan Cooper lark and become it.

Turn right out of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, walk across the motorway (using the pedestrian bridge obviously) and into the Botanic Gardens and you will shortly reach the Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain. It was erected in 1889 in memory of Lewis Wolfe Levy, a distinguished Jewish philanthropist and businessman who, despite the disadvantage of being an astute politician, spent more time helping others than helping himself, serving on the boards of hospitals, blind institutions and synagogues. He died of thrombosis in 1885 having accumulated both a lot of land and a lot of money (and a lot of children - thirteen in all, a veritable football team).

The drinking fountain itself is described by the Sydney Historical Society as 'a beautiful structure of polished red and white granite, surmounted by a charming bronze female figure by Birch' (supposedly Diana). Charles Bell Birch was an English sculptor responsible for the griffin at Temple Bar in the Strand in London: something that belongs to my 'I would like to have it but even with money it would be impossible' category. Birch won a prize whilst at art school in a competition for a Wood Nymph which is rather sweet. I think competitions for best Wood Nymph should be reinstated at all art schools immediately. Not that it did Birch any good as he died a virtual pauper. (His Wood Nymph is rather peculiar: two deer are in the nymph's arms, one suckling a finger the other a breast. Breasts were obviously of healthy interest as you will see from the Levy Fountain.)

Enough of Mr. Birch. Back to the fountain itself. Apart from being sinuous, decorative and beautiful it is actually of use - the largest remaining public water fountain in Sydney. It is a miracle that in the age of public health and safety people are still allowed to drink from the four corner drinking fountains.  The beakers that used to be left perching over the taps in the late nineteenth century and which can be seen in a photo on the sign next the fountain are no longer, naturally, extant. I might replace them myself one day...

Whilst I sat there looking at the fountain the other day on a nearby bench, a butterfly perched on the arm-rest beside me, waiting for my parents to complete their trawl of the Art Gallery in search of John Glover paintings, I watched a stream of people pause in their tracks upon coming across Diana and her attendant lions, frogs and heron. Almost all of them reached for their cameras and got their companions to pose with Birch's nude. Almost all of them supped at her waters. The fountain's powers are undiminished after over a hundred years, the polished lines of red and white marble which were carved far away in Cornwall still lead our eyes up, around and over this magnificent object.

Here it is. The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain. Something that I would like to be.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Fern Chairs in the Botanic Gardens

Things I like about Sydney No. 7: The Botanic Gardens Pt. 1

The Botanic Gardens are an obvious favourite place to visit for anyone living in Sydney, being central, accessible, and generally fabulous. I am going to try and be specific about them, to divvy up the place into items/specimens/creatures and so on...after all, it is not somewhere you only visit once; why describe it just the once?

The Fernery is where I shall begin. Although insignificant on the outside and, to be honest, rather tatty on the inside, this conservatory contains an item of unsurpassed genius: an ironwork chair with a fern design.

Here it is:

I don't know who designed it or when as the Botanic Gardens Trust website merely says that the current Fernery was created in the 1990's on a site where previous ferneries have been and that it is a good place to get wedding photos taken....extremely informative.

When Daniel and I were last there we were fortunate enough to have the place to ourselves (although I might have relished ruining a few wedding photos). We reclined gracefully in the fern chairs, imagining servants would shortly appear bearing cups of Earl Grey and some tiffin, watching fish idle in the shadows cast by a Japanese-style bridge, breathing in the earthy smells of ferns uncurling and ripening around us. Sunlight dappled and danced through the glass ceiling and down through the fronds onto our eyelids which became heavier and heavier until...

Alas! It was but a short-lived idyll, too soon ruined by the advent of some pesky tourists and their even peskier children. But I can heartily recommend the place as somewhere to go when the woes of the world are too much and you yearn for simpler times...just sit in the fern chairs and dream...

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Robert Brough Memorial Fountain

Things I like about Sydney No. 6: The Robert Brough Memorial Fountain.

Within the precincts of the Sydney Hospital near the perimeter of the Botanic Gardens in the centre of town lies a beautifully hidden surprise....

The Sydney Hospital in itself is a marvellous thing - it reminds me more than anything else in Sydney of Victorian London with its iron and glass lamps and soft-coloured stone. But go beyond its brash facade and the copy of the Florentine Boar (Il Porcellino) whose nose you rub for good luck and you will reach an inner courtyard in the centre of which is the most splendid, camp, magical fountain...

It comprises three tiers of colourful cast-iron which look like they are pretending to be majolica. On the largest tier there is circle of brolgas (an Australian stork) surrounded by bright orange bulrushes. On the tier above, a national symbol - black swans. All these birds have preposterously bright brick red beaks and legs set off against a vivid yellow background dotted with olive-green lily pads. The effect is stunning and somewhat unexpected, as if you have stumbled into an ex-patients' morphine-addled hallucination.

Made in England by the Colebrookdale Factory, shipped out here and installed in 1907, the fountain was paid for by the funds raised by the many fans of Robert Brough. But why? Who was Robert Brough?

Well it turns out that during the period of Oscar Wilde's trial and eventual imprisonment in 1895 (after which, as we all know, poor Oscar was cast into prison and into the depths of despair), whilst the whole of London ceased to perform his plays or even to mention the sodomite's name,  in Sydney it was a different story. For Robert Brough, who was both an actor and the founder of the unfunny-sounding Brough-Boucicault Comedy Company, was busy shamelessly introducing Australia to the delights of Wilde's dramas. Brough's productions of Wilde were enthusiastically attended by colonial high society including several governors and their wives and Brough had the nerve to promote the plays as being by Wilde in his theatrical advertisements a full decade before London dared to do likewise.

So Hoorah for Robert Brough! Hoorah for Sydney! Hoorah for the Robert Brough Memorial Fountain.  If only Wilde had been exiled to Sydney like all those other convicts instead of living his last years dying miserably in Paris all would have been well and he would, no doubt, have found something extremely withering and witty to say about this fountain....

A small update...

With regard to two of my previous posts...

Firstly, INSECT KILLER! aisles...I thought you might like to see what appeared as I was folding today's laundry in the supposed safety of our living room (the calm of which was abruptly shattered by the sounds of me screaming). I would welcome any suggestions as to what exactly this creature might be (my guess is a ginormous grasshopper but as it was about five inches long with feelers another six inches long sprouting from just behind it's nose perhaps it's a LONG-FEELERED GOLIATH grasshopper) and which particular spray I might need to EXTERMINATE the ugly bastard....

Secondly, with regard to Trees That Flower, I am rather proud of the following, considering that I when I bought this sickly looking Frangipani almost a year ago on one of my fevered first trips to a garden centre in Sydney it was distinctly unimpressive. But now? Lo! Behold! it has flowered...(and soon it will be a tree if the pace at which it is shooting forth new branches is anything to go by).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Acrobatic possums

Things I like about Sydney No. 5: The agility and grace of possums.

If it wasn't for the ever-vigilant and faithful Sniff and his super-nosey nose I wouldn't be acquainted with the acrobatic skills of possums at all: possum night-life would have remained invisible to me. The large and thriving arboreal marsupial secret society that nightly romps and carouses amongst the tree-tops and over the roof-scapes of Camperdown would have passed me by.

Proudly I can say however, with Sniff by my side on moonlit walks, I have had a world revealed to me that remains resolutely hidden to most.

Our shared nightly scenario goes something like this... Sniff begs to be taken out at around ten or eleven at night for his last peeing-up-a-tree before bed. His begging invariably succeeds. We saunter down the road casually, breathing in the night air, worrying vaguely about mosquitoes and whether they bite when one's on the move. We watch clouds scud by and peer into people's lit windows to see what the neighbours are getting up to and to scoff at all the television sets. All is calm and peaceful.

Suddenly, like a mad thing possessed by the veritable devil, Sniff will hare off down the road, aiming with the accuracy of a Scud missile towards a particular tree, nose quivering, little legs scampering, ears pricked.

On arrival he'll pace around the tree trunk, sniffing ever vigorously, before trying to climb up it. This last part he's not very good at, luckily for possums, because invariably I look up and there, sat in the crook of a branch, will be a pale-nosed trembling bundle of fur with piercing, gleaming eyes and a big black bushy tail. The Possum Detector (or P. D. for short) has done it again.

Up above and below are photos of a typical Sniff discovery - the Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), a protected species which feeds on blossoms, fruit and leaves. Rather urbanised now, the Brushtail will eat almost anything: tonight I unsuccessfully tried to tempt one down out of the trees with a piece of courgette in a friend's garden in Redfern...Their noses are exceptionally pink, their ears always at an impish angle (whoever created Yoda in Star Wars was conversant with the Brushtail Possum's ears), their claws impressively fierce, their tail luxuriously thick and black.

As for the acrobatic part, the other night the P. D. hared off down the road towards a distant telegraph pole and as I looked up a possum nimbly ran up a sloping wire to the top of the pole and then sauntered along the high wire with the greatest of ease, like the coolest of circus performers, waving its nonchalant tail. Extremely impressive, I thought. On a par with the squirrels of Islington who, when it comes to stealing bird food from supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeders, are as flexible as any circus contortionist.

The P. D. has discovered possums on rooftops and gables, in tall trees and small trees, has chased them across the park and into the cemetery. They obviously smell enchanting. Nothing excites him more...I worry that there will be nothing like them in London to thrill him in the same way. We don't have large marsupials roaming around at night. Perhaps foxes will have the same effect on him. They are, after all, powerfully smelly...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Browsing INSECT KILLER! aisles in supermarkets

One of the things I like most about living in Sydney is moaning on and on to anyone who will listen about Australia's numerous insects. But as that probably isn't allowed as an entry on this blog I am going to begin with the following (genuine) favourite thing:

Things I like about Sydney No. 4: browsing the INSECT KILLER! aisles in supermarkets.

As you can see from the above photograph of products I have bought (I don't just browse, folks), the INSECT KILLER! displays in supermarkets are very colourful. Everything is characterised by great swathes of primary colours with ZAP and POW arrows and LIGHTNING flashes and I'm totally, totally convinced by the efficacy of it all. Products are made by companies with completely bizarre names: Mortein (perhaps supposed to make us think of morticians and therefore death: TOTALLY convinced) and Pea-Beu (so unfathomable and I have no idea how to pronounce the name but again TOTALLY convinced) are the most prolific but there are many, many others. For the most extraordinary thing of all about INSECT KILLER! sections in supermarkets is how ENOOOOORMOUS they are and just how many products you can buy - with the obvious corollary being just how many bloody insects there are in this country...Imagine how many people are waging war daily against them. If we all stopped spraying and blasting and ZAPPING and POWING for a week I reckon the world would collapse under the weight of all those liberated beasties.

Daniel came back from Franklins (our local and very low-rent supermarket which nevertheless has shelf after shelf after shelf of INSECT KILLER! products) bearing Mortein's NEST KILL the other day which gave me my biggest frisson of excitement in weeks. Here was a product that doesn't just kill ants (as you can see, we already have that). NO! This product kills ANT NESTS!!!! There's a lovely description of exactly how this is achieved on the back of the packet. It uses the word KILL a lot as well as random CAPITALS (which you may notice I am doing in honour today of INSECT KILLER! produce).

Unfortunately, I'm still confused by and stuck on Step No. 1: Eliminate alternative food sources....Does this mean I have to throw away all the food in the house? Do ants eat everything? HELP! ZAP! POW!

For those of you wondering why all these products are needed I thought I might give you (without moaning or complaining or anything) an example or two of things that have casually appeared in our house.

This was living in the kitchen for a while. In itself this is bad enough. The spiders I'm used to aren't a) hairy and b) huge or c) possibly poisonous. What worried me particularly about him however was the fact that with a spider this big something has to have been even bigger to have gnawed off its missing eighth leg. The even bigger thing was, knowing spiders and their appetites, probably its mate. Therefore, I concluded, somewhere nearby is AN EVEN BIGGER BLOODY SPIDER. Also rather alarming was the fact that before it was living near the ceiling in a nicely visible fashion Daniel discovered it by overturning a chair. Now that is lurking with intent.

All Australians will say about these Huntsmen spiders is that "Oh, they're really good to have around. They eat other insects." Well, why didn't it eat this then?

As we all know, cockroaches (of which this is one) are wholly repugnant. If the Huntsman was any good it would have chomped on this for dinner instead of which the two lived side by side apparently having a bit of a tea party.

There are 3,500 - 4,000 different species of cockroach and most of them seem to live in Australia: small brown ones, large brown ones, flying black ones, enormous flying black ones. Although the fastest is said to have an escape response of 40 milliseconds the large ones that live in our garage and come out at night (especially when it's hot - oh, that's a lot then) merely blink and then stare when you turn the light on. Which makes it easy to ZAP and POW them with Mortein or Pea Beu so I'm not too worried about them. Except when they scuttle over my bare flesh at night when I'm lying in bed...
Apparently Australian aborigines use cockroaches to obtain a local anaesthetic so I must remember to head for the garage when I've run out of Savlon. Except for the fact that the garage is now out-of-bounds. The other night I discovered a true, genuine, horror there...a redback spider. These can kill. I'm heading off to Franklins again now to see what's there to ZAP the thing in the INSECT KILLER! aisle. The excitement! HA! I can add to my collection of sprays.

Catch you later.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

James Sullivan's Horse Trough

 Just around the corner from our house is one of three places where I particularly like to take Sniff for a walk - Camperdown Park - and within the park is one of my favourite things: a horse trough dedicated to the memory of James Sullivan and erected by the RSPCA.

The trough is sadly neglected as you can see from the photograph. At each end, where there should be fresh water, there are only broken twigs and rotting leaves. The mounting block serves no purpose anymore except as seating for the occasional Goth or as a climbing frame for youngsters - horse-riders being few and far between in Camperdown nowadays. Nevertheless the trough exerts a powerful fascination over me because of the inscription engraved at both ends. On dull blueish grey metal plaques the following text is inscribed in raised capitals:

who lost his life on 23rd July 1924
when trying to save his employer's
horses from death by fire.

Now this memorial inscription raises many more questions than it provides answers: who was his employer? where did this happen? in Camperdown Park? did the horses die? It is so bizarre in its reduction of someone's life to a single act without even giving us the barest details of his life: was he young? was he Australian? was he connected to the RSPCA? was he shagging his employer?

I could look him up on the internet and no doubt find answers to some or maybe even all of these questions but I prefer to remain in ignorance of the real James Sullivan and to imagine him, a young brawny, bronzed Australian, daily battling fire and rescuing horses, as if that was his sole occupation and purpose in life.

(The trough also nostalgically reminds me of the mounting block in London near the ICA in Waterloo Place, supposedly used by the Duke of Wellington...)

The rest of Camperdown Park is a little like its sign: a faded glory. The circus lettering implies side-shows and tea-rooms but there are no excitements here. There is a magnificent bandstand but even this is merely secondhand. An iron plaque explains that it was built in 1888 by Souter and Martin at the impressive-sounding Globe Foundry for the larger and more central Hyde Park which replaced it with a new bandstand and an amphitheatre in 1910, subsequently giving their cast-off to Camperdown who promptly put it up in their park in 1911. It has been, more recently, renovated and its ceiling painted a blushing pink under which boxers and tai chi experts do their daily work-outs.

I am always surprised by the fact that the Oval at the centre of the park is actually used for SPORT. This seems so un-English somehow. Shouldn't it just be used for taking drugs and drinking beer? But every weekend there will be some match or other (currently, it being summer, cricket). Last Saturday a cricket match was underway in 40-degree heat, everyone dressed in proper whites and managing to look vaguely crisp and alert despite the humidity. There was not a single spectator. Not one. Apart from Sniff who had a quick butchers. During the week, various odd-balls jog their way around the perimeter of the Oval or repeatedly kick rugby-shaped balls through the goal-posts or run on the spot grunting. There is a grandstand for the non-existent spectators the stairs of which are popularly used for running up and down in an exhausting-looking fashion but as neither Sniff nor I are impressed by displays of athletic vigour ("this means nothing to me" to paraphrase Midge Ure) this all makes me wonder whether I will ever, ever fit in here...

I'm going to go and raise a glass of something cool to James Sullivan. Farewell for now.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cheap Asparagus

This is going to be short and sweet.

Things I like about Sydney No. 2:

Cheap asparagus.

I was able to buy this much today for only three dollars (that's one pound fifty)... how marvellous is that?

(the fact that the farm market where I go to get it is in an underground car park slightly dilutes my joy in this economic miracle but nevertheless...)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trees that Flower.

When I was little and growing up in St. Albans (that thrilling hotbed of bohemianism) my mother and I used to walk down Sandridge Road each morning to reach my primary school. It was (and still is) a long and boring road, very straight and unyielding, architecturally bereft of interest and almost completely without charm except that our side, the left-hand side, was lined with cherry trees. Every spring they would all simultaneously burst into blossom. The best thing about this was that the trees alternated in colour: pink, white, pink, white, pink, white...with only the occasional slip up in the pattern. I used to wonder how this had been achieved: did whoever planted the trees aim to create this perfect pattern or was it simply a miraculous freak of nature?

Which brings me to "things I like about Sydney" No. 1: Trees that flower.

Apart from those delicate cherry blossoms and the odd white bracts on sycamores, trees in England don't have a tendency to suddenly and unexpectedly burst into violent bloom. In Sydney however, it is a different story. Everything seems to be itching to explode into obscenely tropical flower. One day things will be normal and the next great pendulous growths appear over the next door neighbour's fence.

Like these red flowers for instance, nicely matching the dustbins (yellow for recycling, red for rubbish, green for garden waste; red collected once a week, yellow every other week, green no idea I don't have a garden...bins outside in the lane* for no longer than 24 hours or else possible fines from the council for being unsightly...I know, we've had a letter about it. Although I would like to say that the rubbish collectors themselves play havoc with my bins each week and I have to run up and down the lane looking for them on a Monday evening, eventually unearthing them and dragging them back home like recalcitrant children late for tea).

Or then those drooping pinkish white flowers which looked somehow putrid hanging there in the sun, like a tree festooned with rotting meat or overcooked prawns. I buried my nose in one but there was no scent (at least at that time and on that day) but I expected it to smell baaaad...

My favourite flowering tree, and it seems the longest-lasting for the skies have been full of them for nearly two months now, are the pale purplish-blue flowers of the jacaranda which look so beautiful outlined against both a bright blue sky and a dull grey one.

Then there is the tree immediately outside our house which is only just beginning to flower: strange spindly pink petals around a dark pink heart. Unlike the wattles and grevilleas it doesn't seem to attract any birds. Which is a relief in one way because a tree full of rainbow lorikeets is an extremely loud tree.

If anyone should know what our tree is please let me know...

As I type today it is 41 degrees with a wind blowing like a fan-assisted pizza oven. Sniff is lying under furniture hoping that it might be cooler there (it's certainly dustier) and Daniel is lying on top of furniture wilting, complaining and generally bemoaning the heat. The streets are empty of people, everyone no doubt huddled inside air-conditioned spaces: buildings and cars. We have no air-conditioning. We haven't even a fan. It is, to be honest, extremely stupid of us. But the jacarandas are still blooming and Sniff and I managed a quick struggle around Camperdown Park which may well soon bring me on to: Things I Like About Sydney No. 2...
  1. *Lane: there is so much space in Australia that there is a lane at the back of our road (and we are not alone) whose sole purpose seems to be to use up some of this space, whilst also providing a perfect area for nefarious and illegal activities...such as casing the joint or perhaps having a joint or perhaps breaking someone's joints.... In London this would naturally spell complete disaster whereas here the lanes seem to remain a blank space, unused by all except builders, possoms, and those carelessly-strewing-rubbish-bins refuse collectors. There was a dead rat in the lane the other day. Sniff found it. And Sniff sniffed it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Premise

I was lying last week on
an inordinately comfortable chaise longue in my friend Kevin's flat in Pythagorasstraat in Amsterdam. The rain was falling softly in that lovely European way onto the enormous skylight which showed nothing but an expanse of gray. A few bedraggled blackbirds huddled on the branches of the fir tree outside the window and rivulets of water ran down the leaves of Kevin's balcony garden. I sipped from the mug of Earl Grey tea which had just been placed within arm's reach on a beautiful side table and felt pleasantly full with my breakfast of toast and perfectly poached eggs: all was civilised and just so.

And then I suddenly remembered. I don't live in Europe anymore. I live in Australia. This was just an interlude, a sidebar, a cunning distraction. Within the week I would be back in Sydney. It would be hot. It would be hell. I'd have no friends again.

I threw a despairing look at Kevin and began, once more, to complain bitterly about my lot. He sighed (after all, he was about to become a wise old man of 50) and threw out a challenge.

"I want you" he said, "to write to me every week and tell me three things you like about Sydney."

I spluttered into my Earl Grey. "THREE things a week. Are you kidding?"

We negotiated heavily. After all, I was coming from the three-things-a-year angle...

Agreement was eventually reached in Schiphol Airport's rather glum (but still gorgeously European) bar (they gave us peanuts in a glass with a spoon: how Dutch is that...). I would write about ONE thing I like about Sydney at least ONCE a week.

This blog is my attempt to fulfill my half-hearted (and by the end of negotiations half-drunken) promise to Kevin to write about "the things I like about Sydney". Starting next time. Honest.

Enormous apologies up-front to all Australians and all Sydneysiders: really, it's not you, it's me....