Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting the ferry to Ken's

Things I like about Sydney No. 60: Getting the ferry to Ken's

We are surrounded by water here in Greenwich. To begin with, there is the creek at the bottom of the garden which, as it acts as a conduit for rainwater, has been a raging torrent for the last week or so. Walk along the banks of the creek and you very soon reach the bays around Berry Island and Balls Head Reserve and can look out over vast expanses of busy waterways. (I took the photo that heads these pages from the giddy heights of Balls Head Reserve.) Greenwich itself culminates in Greenwich Point which, as the name implies, is a spit of land surrounded by water from which vantage point you can look over to the city.

Greenwich boasts both a ferry stop and Greenwich Baths, a sea-water swimming pool which opens for the summer months but which presents a rather sorry picture at this time of year:

Then there is the Greenwich Sailing Club (if you are of the yachting persuasion) which is always deserted during the week (no doubt because those who can afford a yacht have to put in some hours at their merchant bank) except for an ever-varying bunch of fisherfolk, angling for their supper from the Club's shores. At 3 p.m. today they consisted of a small buttoned-up old Chinese man (who had about four rods on the go), a burkha-clad bespectacled middle-aged woman, and a young morose-looking fat man in an anorak.  I asked the younger of the three what he'd caught today and he showed me some sizeable leatherjackets - so-called because you can slip off their skin in one easy movement...Two policemen made a brief drive-past just after this but they didn't bother to get out and check whether anyone was over-stepping the fishing allowances given in great detail on a large rather decorative sign:

Despite this overwhelming presence of water we unfortunately spend very little time on it. The Greenwich ferry stop is that little bit too far from our house to be really serviceable. And we don't, yet at least, have a yacht. Our neighbour does have a kayak strapped to the roof of his car but he's also one of those cycling types - forever donning his lycra and speeding off into the distance - and I'm sure that kayaking requires a certain amount of a) physical effort and b) discipline, both of which are in short supply at our house these days.

Which is why my trips to visit Ken are so special.

Ken Unsworth is one of Australia's most eminent sculptors and performance artists. His work is in public collections the world over - Denmark, Korea, New York, Poland, Holland - and is of course on permanent display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is a fantastic man to know - funny, clever, generous, brimful of ideas, and, despite having just turned 80, full of boundless energy. He has also had the good sense and intelligence to commission me to write music for three of his recent installations/performances - the latest of which will be performed on Cockatoo Island in August.

Ken lives in Birchgrove, a rather upmarket suburb almost directly opposite Greenwich on the other side of the water. To get there via road is an incredibly complicated affair and takes forever - once over the Sydney Harbour Bridge you have to head for the less impressive Anzac Bridge, cross over that, weave your way through several suburbs and on and on and on...

To get there by ferry however is, literally, a matter of minutes. Two minutes to be exact. Hop on, sit down, stand up, hop off. It's great fun. And (sssssh!) more often than not, free...

The best ferries are the old yellow and green ones which are supremely characterful and charming. There are some newer ones plying the route and they simply don't compare. Instead of being worked in metal and wood they seem to be all plastic and inelegance so that I feel a great disappointment when they hove into sight, it's like being served Lambrusco at a party rather than Veuve Cliquot...

The ferries stick remarkably well to their scheduled timetable (at least during the off-peak hours when I use them). As they steam up to the ferry stop the water rushes madly against the jetty's posts, fishermen frantically reel in their lines, and the few waiting passengers excitedly get ready for the boarding ritual. (At least, I'm excited. There is something about journeying by water that still makes my heart beat that little bit faster).

You can always spot who is a tourist because they invariably rush to board the ferry as soon as it arrives whereas we in the know hang back for the "Boarding Ritual". The ferry operator has to first lasso his rope round the mooring pin to secure the boat. Then he drags a metal gangway plank across to the jetty to link the boat to shore and then he has to LET THE PASSENGERS OFF FIRST...Then, and only then, you can board.

The attempt to board before disembarking passengers is comparable to that mistake tourists always make on the escalators of the London Underground, despite the many signs, of standing on the wrong side. Which reminds me that here in Sydney people stand on the OPPOSITE side on escalators. As if to deliberately trip up all those smug Londoners (me) who sharply bark "Excuse Me" ten times a day at tourists on the Undergound.

(Although to add a further dimension to this escalator confusion, most people in Sydney simply stand still on escalators full-stop. On either side. As if walking has gone out of fashion...)

If you're lucky, the ferry operator in charge of embarkation is young and handsome and will amply fulfill any fantasy you might have about sailors. More often than not however they are rather gruff and wizened but do at least give off a reassuring air of being highly efficient in emergencies. The summer months tend to attract a better-looking class of seaman I have found...

Here's one of the old-style yellow and green ferries steaming across from Greenwich to Birchgrove without me on it. From Birchgrove you will soon reach Circular Quay via Balmain and Luna Park. And anyone one who comes to stay should do exactly that at my's one of those things that surely features high in the list in those tasteless "1,000 Things To Do Before You Die" books.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Things I like about Sydney No. 59: Fungi

It is difficult to think of anything I like about Sydney at the moment, the weather has been so unremittingly foul. For almost two weeks it has been raining constantly, sometimes lightly, sometimes with a violence scarce to be believed. Our towels are permanently damp, the washing hung under the eaves refuses to dry, a black mould is spreading across the bathroom ceiling and white mould is appearing on the spines of my books. Even my clarinets, safely ensconced in their case, have a light powdering of mould. Being perched on the edge of a creek obviously has its disadvantages. Some days I feel I could wring myself out.

However, there is one thing that thrives in such damp conditions. The weather may be foul for folk but it is fabulous for fungi. Mycologists throughout Sydney must be having a field day. On a single walk yesterday Sniff and I discovered green, orange, brown and blue fungi, as evidenced below:

My friend Tania used to refuse to eat mushrooms because they grew in the dark. I'm not sure whether she has managed to conquer this phobia or not as she is now, like me, a somewhat reluctant exile and has lived in Boston for well over a decade (in reality probably two decades if I were only to admit to the real passing of time) and we've had few opportunities at our last meetings to discuss the finer points of fungi. Nevertheless, if she is still avoiding the mushroom she is of course quite sensible, for these things can kill...

The Australian National Botanic Garden has an extensive website dedicated to fungi and it devotes an entire page to the Deathcap. This innocuous-looking mushroom contains enough poison in one cap to kill a healthy adult and less will be enough to kill a small child and/or Sniff. You cannot remove the poisons by soaking, cooking or drying the mushroom and they are found throughout the cap, gills, stem and spores. It looks like this (courtesy the Australian Botanic Gardens Fungi website):

click to enlarge

Daniel and I came across these monsters which, if they happened to be Deathcaps, would be enough to kill a small army. Daniel kindly thrust his hand into the picture to give an idea of scale...

The finely coloured fungi that Sniff and I found on our walk exhibit the standard mushroom shape, but some of the fungi we found were different. Many mushrooms grow straight out of rotting and fallen wood often with a semi-circular cap attached by its upper side.  This was a particularly beautiful specimen:

Just around the corner were these little beauties which grew in stalk-like clusters. They are perhaps an example of the so-called Coral Fungi.

Then there were these, small but perfectly-formed.

And I cannot leave this subject without re-visiting the most disgusting fungus I've ever seen which Daniel and I found on the edge of a golf course last year. I have done my research and can now reveal that it is called Aseroe rubra, commonly known as either the anemone stinkhorn or starfish fungus. It is distinguished not only by its remarkable appearance but also by its foul odour of carrion with which it attracts flies which then spread its spores...Lovely.

An afterword: Tania kindly got in touch to clarify her current position on mushrooms and I think we can safely say from the following that they still aren't her favourite thing to eat...

"Well, it's not just that they grow in the dark. That's only the start of it really. It's that they grow so fast and they are so pale and the dreadful slipperiness of them when cooked. And their meatiness - both too much and not enough of the animal - a horrible boneless quality that manages to be both firm and flabby at the same time. And the fact that they have gills like a fish and appear so suddenly you only have to turn your back and there they are, fully formed. They don't smell right...they smell old, like something that should be dead but isn't. Plus they are related to athlete's foot - how can anyone eat something related to athlete's foot. Or a yeast infection for god's sake. Nasty silent things. Nasty."

I understand the vehemence she displays here and regularly inflict such myself upon aubergines...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Things that go bump in the day.

Things I like about Sydney No. 58: Things That Go Bump in the Day

As I explained in my last Reluctant Sydneysider posting I am used to Things That Go Bump in the Night here in the depths of the inner-city bush - be it marauding rats in the kitchen, possums pattering across the roof, or Sniff's rare but alarming habit of leaping up in the middle of the night and barking at some invisible (to us at any rate) enemy.

But daytime in Greenwich also brings its fair share of disturbances. There are the man-made noises of building work and gardening which resonate up and down the creek, amplified somehow across the water; the early morning racket of the kookaburras and the currawongs carousing in the tree-tops; the raucous passings-by of flocks of cockatoos; the sound of torrential rain (we're having a wet time of it these days); the high lonesome tweets of the King Parrots; and, periodically, the loud shocking thud of a bird flying smack bang into our many windows. These birds are the Things That Go Bump in the Day.

Last week I was negotiating the twists and turns of our driveway with a boot-full of groceries, returning home from Lane Cove (not the closest but probably our best local shopping). Locating our house for the first time involves a fair amount of intelligence and a modicum of derring-do because our private driveway is both difficult to find and in various states of decay. Once you've found it, usually by telephoning for directions having already got lost once or twice, you veer past our letterbox (which confusingly is right outside someone else's house) and head further down the increasingly delapidated track for the building on the right (the one on the left is much larger, posher and has a swimming pool...).

Talking of letterboxes, I would like to say that the American-style mailboxes which everyone has here at the entrance to their driveways is something I like about Sydney and perhaps to go on to write a whole blog about Australia Post. But the truth is I find them rather alarming. Although there is something lovely about having to trudge for three minutes up the drive to check to see if the post has arrived there is nothing lovely about the trudge back home having discovered it to be empty.

 And there is equally nothing remotely good about lifting that lid only to find a Huntsman Spider warming up your letters for you like a bird on its eggs (which has happened more than once). This latter worry means that checking for mail in the dark is a particularly risky business. (Here's a Huntsman to emphasise the point:)

Also, I often troop down the drive, lean over the mailbox to lift the lid and inadvertently push my face straight into a spider's web as other spiders have a habit of looping their threads from the adjacent telegraph-pole to our mailbox's lid. Whatismore, the mailbox is by no means waterproof and I often retrieve slightly soggy letters from inside and drenched local newsletters from the ledge above. You have to admire the Australians though for their honesty. None of our mailboxes are locked...if this were Islington, we would never receive any post, it would have been nicked by a hoodie the minute the postman moved on...

Our postman is a lovely man. The other day I caught him dancing down the drive, headphones clamped to his head, so I asked him what he was listening to. The completely unexpected answer was that he was listening to The Danse Society - an obscure 80s British New Romantic band whose first  (and perhaps only) album I happened to have bought, in St Albans, from the record shop in Marshalswick Quadrant, in 1981. This led to a conversation about the best electronic groups of the early 80s but the postie (to use the Australian vernacular) knew far more about the subject than I, citing demos, record label names, and vinyl pressing numbers with the slightly scary verve of a fanatic. Perhaps because he dances most of his route (but more likely because he seems to cover a vast area of Greenwich and we're at the very end of his schedule) our post doesn't arrive before three o clock and often arrives closer to five. And anything that needs signing or such-like just goes straight back to the post-office - the posties aren't going to tramp those extra minutes to our front-door.

All of which is a rather long diversion from the thrust of today's blog: Things that Go Bump in the Day. To which subject we shall now return...

There I was driving up to the house with the day's shopping, chewing on a Jelly Snake and singing along (aptly) to The Human League. I careened recklessly into the car-port (which is always fun) and got out of the car. Suddenly there exploded above my head a cacophony of squawking birds. I looked up and caught sight of three or four agitated Noisy Miners swirling around. I don't like Noisy Miners - they harass and harangue other birds, frequently swoop down to attack Sniff on our walks, and opportunistically fill up niches abandoned by less aggressive birds. As an example of their ubiquity when we lived in Campderdown the Noisy Miner was the ONLY bird to visit my garden of native plants specifically bought to entice our avian friends:

In addition, Noisy Miners have greedy-looking yellow eyes and sharp yellow beaks and make a terrible din.

Which is what they were doing now. And amidst all the squawking, there was a sudden great thud which caused the Miners to flee in an instance, piping and flapping as they left. Something had flown straight into our windows, braining itself. It now lay insensible by the front door like a misdirected parcel.

Unfortunately I am not very good in an emergency. When my parents were over here and my father fell over on a bushwalk and scraped all the skin off the top of his hand instead of manfully taking charge I just stared, panicked a bit and hoped that my mother would know what to do - which she did of course. (Although in my defence I did manage to get them both back to Sydney and to a hospital). When our next-door neighbours' burglar alarm went off the other month I just lay on our chaise-longue reading a book, blaming the rain, and wishing they'd turn the bloody thing off. I felt rather stupid when they came by an hour later and asked whether I'd seen anything suspicious as a lot of their valuables were missing...

Here I was. I had a motionless bird on the front doorstep, looking much like a goner, needing my help. There was no-one to turn to (Sniff is also useless in an emergency), time to step up to the plate...

The first thing I realised was that my stunned bird was no Noisy Miner. If it had been, perhaps I could have just ignored it and left it to its fate. However, before me was a bird I had never seen before, in all my bird-watching, binocular-bearing Sydney days. This immediately explained the consternation of the Miners in the first place - something foreign had dared to land in Glenview Street.

I unlocked the front door, tried to stop Sniff from feasting upon our feathered friend, and began to ransack the house for a cardboard box because I remembered that stunned birds should be placed in darkness and left to regain their strength. Unfortunately, I had dutifully recycled all our cardboard boxes only a few days before and couldn't find one anywhere except that with all the dog paraphernalia in it. Our bird was going to have to stomach the distinct smell of Sniff I thought as I threw dog treats and dog brushes and dog biscuits here, there and everywhere, knowing that every second counted...I then grabbed the dog towel (in for a penny, in for a pound), lined the box and went back outside to our victim.

I gingerly picked it up, admiring its magnificent plumage as I did so. So light, a small fluttering beneath my fingers. It wasn't dead. I thrust him in the box, closed the lid and sighed a huge sigh of relief. Stage One of Rescue Mission accomplished. Now to get him to the vet.

I knew that injured native wildlife are treated for free by any vet so, the dog in tow, we hared off to Sniff's most hated place, the Riverview Animal Hospital, with a rather more precious cargo than groceries in the boot.

Screeching to a halt outside the vet, I parked illegally directly outside their door, feeling like James Bond. I carried my cardboard box inside, rang the bell on the reception desk and waited for the vet to come along so I could reveal this, my special quaking booty:

The vet, interestingly but annoyingly, didn't have a clue what it was. They quickly whisked it off to keep it warm and comfortable and to help ensure that it recovered from its trauma. I have since done my research and think it's an Australasian Pipit. The reason why I've never seen one before is that they normally inhabit open grassland, not creeks and forests. The poor thing was far from home.

I had to fill in a form at the vets explaining exactly where I had found the injured bird because, if it were to recover, they would release it at the exact same spot so the bird can then continue its journey onwards, hopefully recognising where it is. I laboriously wrote out specific instructions on how to reach our front door which, as I explained earlier in this entry, is no easy matter. I asked them to let me know how the Pipit fared and bade it farewell.

So you can imagine that I was EXTREMELY vexed, after all my efforts that day, to discover a week later, on phoning to find out how the bird was doing, that it had been released accidentally when they were checking up on its progress...In other words, the bloody vet let the thing escape, out into a bewildering unknown landscape. Trying to be optimistic about this, there is a Golf Course round the corner from the Animal Hospital which could fairly be counted as open grassland. I'm hoping our Pipit found it, along with some new Pipit friends, and is starting a new breeding colony on the 18th Hole...But, more likely, it was squished by a lorry on the Pacific Highway as it woozily tried to work out where the hell it was.

I can only comfort myself with the thought that I am, after all, at least as good (if not better) in an emergency that the employees of Riverview Animal Hospital.