Saturday, June 26, 2010


Things I like about Sydney No. 26: Gold!

When I lived in Australia many moons ago, my family and I frequently went on sight-seeing trips out of Melbourne to various 'places of interest': to Healesville Sanctuary to stroke the kangaroos, into the Dandenong Ranges for a trip on Puffing Billy ("Australia's favourite steam train"), over to Prince Philip Island to look at the Fairy Penguins and so on. But one of our trips from 1974 that has stuck in my mind the most was when we went to an old gold mining town to pan for gold...

I can't remember now whether it was Bendigo or Ballarat or somewhere else entirely. I dimly recall people dressed in period costume wandering around in character (or perhaps I've even made that up) and that it seemed I had been transported back to the nineteenth century. I can't remember finding any gold but nevertheless found it all very exciting. Imagine! Magnificent fortunes being made overnight! Imperilment from bushrangers wearing metal balaclavas! Old lags grubbing around with sieves and sifters greedily searching for glimmers of yellow, frequently toppled in their toil by sunstroke or the swift bite of a poisonous snake or spider! Gold and convicts! This was the real Australia!

Since Daniel and I arrived in Sydney in 2008 (how time flies) I've wanted to go back to those Victorian mining towns and was very excited when we stopped off in Bendigo on the way back from Adelaide last winter, arriving late at night ready for a day of exploring on the morrow. But all excitement was immediately squashed when we discovered that Sniff, the wretch, was not allowed to stay in ANY of the motels in town. Or, in the state. Or in the country. I'd presumed that 'animal-friendly' on the websites of motels meant dogs could stay in your room when in fact it meant that dogs could stay in the car-park.

Now Sniff is a high maintenance little beast and the fits and shivering begin at the mention of the word goodbye. He is not the sort of dog that would happily settle down in the car for the night. How we wish he were...After driving around for an hour begging with various desk-clerks to let us and the beast stay in their crummy establishment, repulsed at every turn, we drove back to the first motel we went to (in case they would remember me I sent Daniel in this time and hid in the car) and booked a room. Throwing a blanket over his travelling cage I smuggled Sniff inside and hurriedly locked and bolted the door....

All well and good. Daniel sneaked out for some take-away pizza and Sniff settled down at the end of the bed, well-fed, well-watered and well-behaved. Pizza and Daniel arrive, we eat, watch crap television (something we can only ever do in motels and hotels being television-free at home) and go to bed. Come midnight and a strange whining sound starts up, immediately outside our door. Daniel and I wake up instantly. It sounds like a dog is scratching away at our room; it's whimpering. Sniff wakes up. He hears it too. He wants to bark. He's about to bark. We're going to have to smother him with a pillow. The owners have a dog and it's trained to sniff out unwanted intruders. It's smelt Sniff. We're going to be thrown out. Oh God. Sniff's going to bark.

This farrago went on for about an hour or so before we realised that what we could hear was in fact another resident's dog who HAD sensibly and legally been left in the car-park. In the car. But right outside our door.

We didn't get much sleep that night except for Sniff, who after the inital excitement of the dog outside snored away blissfully unaware of our anxiety. At first light, Daniel and I smuggled Sniff back out and hightailed it for Sydney rather than enduring another six nights of worrisome adventure (our plan had been to leisurely meander through towns between Bendigo and Sydney panning for gold and raiding op shops for 30s tableware and secondhand books).

The moral of this story is NEVER GET A DOG!

Anyway, I digress. Back to Gold!

Thwarted in recreating my childhood in Bendigo, once back in Sydney I went on the search for gold and the greatest manifestation of all that crazy wealth that I could find here has to be Martin Place. Martin Place is a pedestrian mall in the central business district (so-called CBD) which has late-Victorian splendour at every turn - it could almost be London. It was opened as late as 1891 and a lot of the best buildings weren't completed until even later (the late 20s/early 30s). Many of the buildings were, and still are, banks - depositories for all those fabulously large nuggets, here in "the heart of corporate Australia".

No. 1 Martin Place was once the main offices of the Australian Post office. Its magnificent 100 metre facade has a central entrance topped by an enormous flouncy marble statue of Queen Victoria flanked by allegorical figures and guarded by the lion and the unicorn. Here it is:

The Australian equivalent of that very British lion and unicorn are also everywhere to be seen in Martin Place but I feel that their symmetry is a little less refined....

These old Post Office headquarters now, needless to say, house shops, a hotel, wine bars and restaurants although the Post Office does maintain a small part of the building as a shop.

Further down Martin Place, after some fairly spectacular deco buildings and more late-Victorian banks, is my favourite gold! part of Sydney: the State Savings Bank, now owned by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia where yours truly holds an account. This building was opened in 1928 but must have taken a fair few years to build. It is hugely imposing, designed to completely   intimidate and belittle its customers, the grand exterior made out of pink granite and terracotta.

And, as if this awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping exterior wasn't enough for the humble Sydneysider in the roaring twenties then there was always the inside to put fear in your heart and a tremble in your step...and this interior has to be the best I've ever seen in a goddamn bank. Pink and green marble  everywhere you look, gleaming from a very recent multi-million dollar make-over, in a central pillared banking chamber that was once one of the largest in the world. Tellers sit behind elaborate grilles of wrought iron with gleaming brass details beneath an intricate plaster and pressed metal ceiling. It is truly fab and fantastically preserved down to its last frill.

I got told off for taking photographs (this is after all a working bank and the poor security guards have to cope with all the gawking tourists who are sensible enough to drop in for a look) so for the first time on this blog I am resorting to using someone else's pictures. I found these on the web: how it was in 1928; how it is now.

One of the best features of the bank is discovered by going down some stairs (with painted frescoes on the ceiling no less) and passing into a much cooler atrium wherein sits the most enormous safe I've ever seen. Obviously, now that I've been doing some teaching at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) and AIM (Australian Institute of Music) I have to visit frequently to deposit huge bundles of cash. It's very James Bond.

No doubt, much of the gold that was discovered in Bendigo and Ballarat and similar places all those years ago has ended up in these walls and floors and pillars of marble. Sydney's gold stopped here.

I have another reason for thinking of gold! this week. It was my parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary yesterday. For that reason, and because I dragged them along to 48 Martin Place when they came to stay last Christmas and they dragged me to Australia all those years ago, I dedicate this blog to them! Happy Anniversary!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The sudden uprising at Glenview Street

Things I like about Sydney No. 25: The sudden uprising at Glenview Street

The other week I introduced two new friends of mine, Thang and Kev, a pair of rainbow lorikeets who were then newly resident here at Glenview Street (aka Glenview Zoo). A few weeks on and I'd like to think that I'm now a firm favourite friend of theirs, a choice destination, for their visits are increasing in number and their volubility is escalating daily. They tell me all sorts of gossip these days and aren't adverse to pecking me "right proper" if I'm either not listening carefully enough or distributing sunflower seeds with the rapidity required to satisfy their ravenous appetites (which I kindly put down to the inclement weather and the intensifying cold). Occasionally there are little arguments with some other friends of theirs who pop in for a quick visit, but we soon get rid of them with some excuse or other and settle down again to our cosy circle. And at night, when Kev and Thang are fast asleep in the branches of some distant eucalypt, heads tucked under bejewelled wing, Pam the rat appears on the verandah to nibble away at their leftovers. She's very good at tidying up.

So all has been calm and collected at Glenview Zoo. Until today, that is. When Sarah and Michael arrived....

As you can see, Sarah and Michael are considerably larger than Thang and Kev. Sarah and Michael, if they were human, would both be over six foot tall. They also take very large shoe sizes - you can't buy them in normal shops....Their sheer bulk, those vicious looking beaks, and those large black talons all bespoke ferocity. But in fact, Sarah and Michael were quite gentle with me, even a little wary. One sudden move and up came those bright yellow crests...

When I was about eleven years old I came to Australia with my family to live in Melbourne for some months whilst my father was on an exchange visit with a university there. We took a house in a suburb called Heidelberg, as unlike the German equivalent as it is possible to be, and in the garden, a quixotic addition, was a caged Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo, called, um, Cocky. At the time I was obsessed with birds but I strangely don't remember much about him. This morning, up close and personal with Sarah and Michael, I began to remember. These cockatoos are very solidly built. They strut and preen and look muscular - the Tysons of the bird world. They are obviously, like all large parrots and cockatoos, extremely bright.

I can hear Australians in their hundreds saying: "Oh, you shouldn't feed them. They become a nuisance. They ruin your woodwork. Blah, blah." But for me, their visit this morning was simply out of this world.

For Thang and Kev it was a bit of a you can see below it's not an equal contest...I've assured them however that it won't be a regular occurrence. Those cockatoos are fairly nomadic. Always going off on skiing holidays or so I've been told...

The Second Deluge

Things I like about Sydney No. 24: The Second Deluge.

Last week it rained. And rained. And rained and rained and rained and rained. And then rained some more.

In all honesty, this shouldn't be a subject for this blog because I really, really didn't like it.

It meant, for instance, that Sniff refused to step outside the house and lay, bored stiff, in front of the gas fire looking at me dolefully as if it was my fault that it was raining. He had to be forcibly carried out to the back of the house (where by this point there was a tsunami raging down the path towards the creek) to ensure he didn't pee up the chaise longue (which he did anyway) or poo on the carpet (which he did later, but that's another story).

It meant that half of the driveway washed itself down towards our parked car, leaving great canyons and piles of bricks to navigate further up the drive and great puddles of sand and silt to walk through to get to the front door.

 It meant that our towels were constantly damp and that no washing would dry. It meant that I had to wear Daniel's unsightly wellington boots - in public. It meant that, even when the rain ceased for a moment, you couldn't go walking along the creek as normal because the path was flooded. (Here's where we have to cross the creek over what are normally dry boulders).

And worst of all, it meant that the leeches came back in force. One even suckered itself to the lintel of the door hoping to latch on to our ears or cunningly kamikaze drop down the back of our shirt collars. It was a particularly choice, fat and dapper specimen - stripes indeed! Is it trying to endear itself to us with this flamboyance?

However, I feel that I can, Noah-like, appreciate this deluge to some degree and it can therefore become the 24th subject for this blog of "Things I like about Sydney". After all, the rain here is so extraordinary. As unlike London rain as it is possible to get.  Its persistence and endurance give Paula Radcliffe more than a run for her money. It is so loud, the drops so large. Teeming. That's the word. It teemed. One day in particular was biblical. Friday, 4th June. One week ago now. The rain was constant for fourteen hours, a constant teeming. Just when you thought it could not get any heavier or any louder the tempo and the volume would crescendo, the sky get even darker, and the water fall in blinding, thicker sheets. Trees fell down across the creek. Waterspouts appeared in Sydney Harbour and, rather frighteningly, waterspouts become tornadoes when they hit land, which they did in the Eastern Suburbs  - Bronte and Marouba - causing some damage. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that on that day "in the eight hours to 5pm, Sydney recorded 63mm of rainfall, with heavier falls in the city's northwest" ie., for us.

The creek became a magnificent, raging, noisy torrent. We can normally hear it from the house, benignly tinkling away; now it roared rather frighteningly.

I cowered inside all day waiting for the tornado to hit Greenwich, periodically shaking out Daniel's wellington boots to ensure that there were no leeches inside, donning them, grabbing Sniff, and running out through the silt and the puddles to plonk him in the drive to pee.

I felt as if I lived in an ark but had failed miserably to gather together any beasts more savoury than leeches. Even Thang and Kev the lorikeets were nowhere to be seen and Sniff didn't count as a solitary canine.

Eventually it stopped raining. We didn't float away after all. The leeches have disappeared, the creek can once more be crossed and the tsunami at the back of the house has dried to a trickle. And I'm about to take Sniff out for a proper walk. Catch you later.