Showing posts with label Sydney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sydney. Show all posts

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Oldies at Sydney University

Click here to see how the famous old Honi Soit weekly newspaper will be preserved online.

This 88-year-old jacaranda tree in the charming quadrangle won’t be there to celebrate the launch of the new database. It died over a month ago, on 29 October 2016, and collapsed onto the sunny green lawn.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Place in North Sydney where I met up in 1957 with my first IBM computer

Towards the end of 1957, after my second year of studies in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney, my student friend Michael Arbib informed me of his recent encounter with the Australian branch of a US company named IBM. Michael had been offered a vacation job with this company, and he invited me to make a similar request. And that's how, in a brand-new North Sydney skyscraper (in 1957, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere), I came to meet up with the IBM 650 machine and a programming language called Fortran. I was therefore just over 17 years old when I started my life-long activities as a computer programmer.

The Miller Street building still exists today, looking small and old-fashioned in the vicinity of modern constructions.

Click to enlarge

At that time, to travel between the IBM offices and the central Sydney business zone, I used to take a tram across the bridge.

Click to enlarge

In that photo of a pair of tram lines on the eastern (Pacific Ocean) side of the bridge, we're looking south towards the main city. The tram on the right is moving northwards to the destination indicated below the driver's window: Frenchs Road in the nearby suburb of Willoughby, just beyond North Sydney. Further to the left, we catch a glimpse of the rear end of a tram moving towards the city, whose surprisingly low skyline can be seen further on. Those two tram lines were soon replaced—as Sydney residents now realize—by automobile lanes.

Today, as I sit here in the French countryside, in front of my computer, it's most moving for me to write a few lines about that distant corner of the world where I came into contact with an archaic IBM computer in 1957. In fact, I spent little time at that North Sydney address, because the company soon moved to a more convenient building in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst. It was there that I worked for much of the time (followed by a short period in the Lidcombe offices of IBM) up until my departure for the Old World at the start of 1962.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sydney loony

Here in France, as elsewhere, Sydney’s terrible ordeal was front-page news, and we could follow events in real time, not only through the Internet, but on French TV news. At an early stage of the affair, I was impressed by a short video by a Wollongong academic, Adam Dolnik, who pointed out that the armed guy with hostages in the Lindt coffee shop on Martin Place was surely a lone loony, rather than a dyed-in-the-wool Islamic terrorist, because the dumb bugger hadn’t even been able to turn up with the appropriate “Islamic State” flag for his evil purposes.

As the day wore on, and fragments of information started to appear concerning the guy’s criminal background, I couldn’t understand (and I still don’t) why Australian media refrained from even hinting at his identity. After all, this dangerous fruitcake had become a minor media celebrity in Sydney… and I even stumbled across a Wikipedia page [click here] concerning the fake sheikh.

A photo of the Lindt window, flashed throughout the world, displayed an extraordinary juxtaposition of contrasting elements: the sort of image that will surely go down in the annals of news photography.

In the early hours of a sad morning, we learnt that there were two innocent martyrs: Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson.

I've just watched a fine video summary of the tragedy, from Channel 7, entitled Window two, hostage down. [I refrain from trying to provide a workable link to this video, but you might be able to use the title to access it.]

This calamity unfolded in a Sydney street, Martin Place, that was transformed long ago into a sanctuary devoted to the victims of warfare. On the eve of the centenary of Gallipoli, the Islamic loony committed a senseless crime whose consequences will be etched forever—in the spirit of this place—in the memory of the nation.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bon voyage

I would have liked to publish this blog post yesterday... but (as Bill Shakespeare put it, so succinctly) better late than never. The last time I spoke about links between the French railway system and the city of Sydney in Australia was almost 7 years ago in a blog post entitled Silly sendup of Sydney by French railways [display]. Happily, things have evolved a lot since then. Yesterday morning—on April 1, 2014, a great date in links between France and Australia—the electronic departure board at the train station in Lille, France’s great northern capital near the Belgian border, announced the inauguration of the first-ever train service from France to Sydney, with its departure set for 11h40 (exactly 23 minutes after the departure of the regular train from Lille to Los Angeles).

As a former resident of Sydney, and now a naturalized French citizen, I must admit that I was totally shocked by the absence of our ambassador at Lille, to bid farewell and Bon voyage to the adventurous inaugural passengers. To understand the full meaning of “adventurous”, simply take a look at a map of the world. Fortunately, the trip is remarkably cheap: a mere $1000 for a return trip. If interested travellers care to send me that meagre amount (multiplied, of course, by the number of people in their group), I’ll make a point of obtaining tickets as soon as possible.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aroma of hot sand

The great Edith Piaf sung the praise of her lover, member of the French Foreign Legion, whose body exuded the aroma of hot sand.

Thousands of kilometers away, when I was a child in the Antipodes, I recall a fabulous communications experiment aimed at training kangaroos to deliver mail (in their pouches) to remote Outback residents. Everything worked fine except for a single devastating obstacle. At that time, Aussies were such lazy uneducated buggers that the kangaroos were incapable of deciphering their handwritten addresses.

Today, things have changed. We learn [here] that a Sydney firm is using drones to deliver textbooks to students.

I reckon that those fabulous Sydney drones, swerving astutely to avoid hitting the pylons of the Harbour Bridge, would surely be capable of honing in on the hot-sand aroma of Piaf's sexy warrior.

Monday, September 24, 2012

So where the bloody hell are you?

Maybe some of my readers don't know this notorious punchline from an Australia Tourism video of 5 years ago:

In Sydney yesterday, certain tourists were given an exceptional opportunity of using their mobile phones to tell worried friends where the bloody hell they happened to be located.

"Apparently we're somewhere between Darling Harbour and Chinatown. We were doing a sightseeing tour in the monorail. Then the bloody thing stopped, and we've been stranded in mid-air for an hour now. Down in the street, we can see firetrucks and rescue workers in hard hats who seem to be getting ready to use a huge mobile crane to reach us. I don't expect we'll be back on earth for a while yet. So, there's no need to hurry about throwing another few prawns on the barbie."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Antipodean voyage 1925

A week ago, I published a short post entitled Images that stimulate our imagination [display]. Well, friends at Gallica tweeted me a thank-you, along with a link to a gift.

The "little souvenir from Australia" was a set of snapshots from an album dated 1925 housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Click here to visit the original website. I've cleaned up and slightly rearranged some of the images, which I shall now present.

On 27 March 1925, a young woman and her parents left Europe on the maiden voyage to the Antipodes of the SS Cathay, built in Glasgow, belonging to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, better known as P&O.

Launched five months earlier, on 31 October 1924, the Cathay was designed to carry some 200 first-class and 100 second-class passengers. In the illustration, no smoke is emerging from the second funnel. There's a good reason for this. That second funnel was a dummy, placed there for purely esthetic reasons.

In Sydney, in 1925, St Andrew's Anglican cathedral and the Town Hall looked much like they do today:

[Click to enlarge]

Circular Quay was a tram terminus.

The trio stayed at the Hampton Court Hotel near Kings Cross.

Recently, this building—which I remember well from my Sydney days—looked like this:

In 1925, Elizabeth Bay and Rose Bay were charming places, as they still are.

The tourists seem to have been attracted to the golf club in Rose Bay.

I've cheated a little by merging two photos together in order to obtain this interesting image of a shark tower at Coogee beach:

On the north shore of the harbor (not yet girded by Sydney's famous bridge), Neutral Bay and the Spit Bridge haven't changed greatly over the years.

There are many other images in the album, including photos from New Zealand.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sydney stables

This blog post is intended primarily for members of my family out in Australia. I've just been informed by my cousin Margaret (daughter of the World War I hero "King" Pickering) that her son Gregory, a prominent horse trainer, now has a website.

Ah, I imagine the great pleasure that certain relatives (my grandparents in Grafton, for example, not to mention my father) would have surely experienced if they had known that a member of our clan was training racehorses out at Warwick Farm.

Margaret has been assisting me constantly (along with other members of the Pickering family) in my research for They Sought the Last of Lands [display].

Monday, May 9, 2011

Australian award for Julian Assange

The Sydney Peace Foundation, founded within the context of the University of Sydney, makes an international award known as the Sydney Peace Prize.

The City of Sydney is a major supporter of this prize, in particular at a financial level.

The gold medal of the Sydney Peace Foundation will be awarded to Julian Assange on 10 May 2011 in London. The citation is "for exceptional courage in pursuit of human rights". The director of the Sydney Peace Foundation, Stuart Rees, says:
"By challenging centuries old practices of government secrecy and by championing people’s right to know, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have created the potential for a new order in journalism and in the free flow of information. Instead of demonizing an Australian citizen who has broken no law, the Australian Government must stop shoring up Washington’s efforts to behave like a totalitarian state. The treatment of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning confirms a US administration at odds with their commitment to universal human rights and intent on militaristic bullying."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Greek rissoles back in Sydney

When I was a young man in Sydney in the late '50s and early '60s (working with IBM), I often used to eat in a nondescript but charming restaurant called The Greeks, on the first floor of an old building not far from Central Station. Most of the clients were of Greek origins, along with a good smattering of young workers and university students. The atmosphere was unsophisticated and friendly, and the food was simple and excellent. Besides, it wasn't expensive. I always ordered the same dish: rissoles. They were unlike any of the beef rissoles I had ever tasted before then. Since then, I've never forgotten those delicious evening meals at The Greeks in Sydney, and I've often wondered what made their rissoles taste so special, so exotic.

Half a century later, thanks to the Internet, I've finally found several convincing answers to that question. First, I must point out that I'm no longer certain that the meat in those marvelous rissoles was in fact beef. It's quite possible that it was ground lamb, which would have been perfectly feasible in Australia (and in Greece, for that matter). Recently, I thought about testing that speculation, but I was discouraged by the question of purchasing ground lamb at my local supermarket. Most of the time, their mincing machines handle beef. So, if you want some ground lamb, you first have to choose a boneless cut of lamb, which is quite expensive here in France, and then you have to purchase an equivalent quantity of beef to be ground, to "clean" the mincing machine by removing the lamb. That procedure irritated me. So, I decided to postpone my test of lamb.

I believe that the mysterious ingredients that made the Greek rissoles so delicious were simply onions, garlic, thyme, corn starch (to "glue" everything together), olive oil and… chopped Greek olives.

Using low-fat ground beef, I prepared such a mixture in my superb red Magimix food processor (chosen for me by my daughter), dumped it onto a wooden cutting board and sliced it up into square rissoles, each of which I sprinkled with breadcrumbs. I decided—rightly or wrongly, I can't say—to allow the rissoles to settle for a few days in the freezer before taking them out, letting them thaw and then cooking them slowly on my Cuisinart grill.

The result, served up with fried tomatoes and onions, leaves no doubts in my mind. I've rediscovered the exotic flavor of the Greek rissoles of my youth in Sydney.

The simple lesson I've learnt through this interesting cooking experiment is that you can add quite a few ingredients to pure ground beef in order to obtain a tasty dish. I guess I could have found this out years ago, but I'd never bothered to use a food processor to test such ideas. Thinking back to The Greeks, I'm wondering what kind of device they used in their kitchen instead of an electric food processor. Maybe an old-fashioned meat grinder.

Meanwhile, in the ground beef domain, I've been amazed by a current news story on US gastronomy. It would appear that people over there are accustomed to devouring strange fodder hidden behind dubious names. A well-known fast-food chain proposes a Mexican delicacy for tacos: a "meat filling" composed of "seasoned ground beef". [I won't mention the identity of this company, because there's apparently a trial in progress, and I have no right to seek to influence its outcome by suggesting that the restaurants have done anything wrong.] Well, somebody on the Internet has supplied a list of all the stuff in their "seasoned ground beef". It's edifying gastronomical reading. First and foremost, there's less than 35 percent beef. As for the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture, here's a list of their ingredients:

— water
— isolated oat product
— salt
— chili pepper
— onion powder
— tomato powder
— oats (wheat)
— soy lecithin
— sugar
— spices
— maltodextrin
— soybean oil (anti-dusting agent)
— garlic powder
— autolyzed yeast extract
— citric acid
— caramel color
— cocoa powder (processed with alkali)
— silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent)
— yeast
— corn starch (
sodium phosphate
— less than 2% of beef broth
— potassium phosphate
— potassium lactate
— natural flavors (including smoke)

Now, that list rings a bell, in the sense that I too used dried aromatic spices and a bit of corn starch (unmodified). Is it possible that the above list might have been the true recipe of the delicious rissoles that I used to eat at The Greeks in Sydney? Be that as it may, I prefer to stick to my olive-based discovery. And, to my US friends, let me say: Bon appétit !

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm annoyed because I'm incapable of recalling what they served up at The Greeks to accompany their rissoles. It was something simple and tasty. Mashed potatoes? Some other kind of vegetables? Spaghetti? Rice? If anyone can help me...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jesus festival in Sydney

I've already pointed out in my Antipodes blog article of 2 December 2007 entitled Reenactments [display] that historical reenactments tend to bore me. The most nauseating reenactments of all are those that attempt to recreate intense suffering and torture. Fortunately, I wasn't a spectator of the Catholic reenactment of Golgotha in the streets of Sydney last night, for this tasteless drama would have surely made me break out in an itchy red rash followed by fever and vomiting. Well, almost...

That ridiculous photo really makes me sick... like the images in the old movie Mondo Cane of Italians whipping their backs, during a religious procession, until they're bloody pulp. I'm nauseated primarily by the mindlessness of the creators of such a show in the streets of Sydney, who were no doubt reimbursed royally for their artistic efforts. Their production is senseless shit, with no links whatsoever to plausible history or facts. Their patron saint, no doubt, is Mel Gibson. They're playing for the gullible gallery, to suck them in. I'm saddened to realize that there are hordes of simple folk who need to gulp down such sick visual crap in order to be able to claim that their existence has a sense. They're deluded, of course, but they'll never be educated enough to know it. So, they jubilate innocently and eagerly in this reenactment of their poor lord and would-be savior attached to a structure that reminds me of a massive concrete pylon in the expressway at Circular Quay. Back in the pioneering days, Australia donated eucalyptus trees to Israel, to clean up the coastal swamps. It's utterly ludicrous to imagine for an instant that ancient Palestine, at the epoch of Jesus, might have possessed trees capable of providing timber for such a great cross as in Sydney 2008. But who worries about facts?

The thing that disturbs me most is that compatriots in my native land as a whole, rather than just a handful of silly pilgrims, might be appreciating all this superficial papal bullshit. I'm sure there'll be descriptions, in next Monday's Sydney Morning Herald, of hedonistic papal parties in luxurious residences on the foreshores of Sydney.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Wet world

For a long time, swimming spectators in France were fascinated by Laure Manaudou. Recently, they've discovered an amazing muscle-bound phenomenon, Alain Bernard. For the moment, this friendly and lucid lad from Aubagne, near Marseille, is simply the fastest swimmer in the world.

These days, there's a lot of talk about high-tech swimsuits, which can account for precious milliseconds in the pool. The other day, for example, when Laure Manaudou was beaten in her favorite category, we saw her in tears on TV explaining that everything would revert to normal as soon as she could reappear in her new swimsuit.

In the swimsuit manufacturer's logo, the phallic arrowhead is in fact a stylized boomerang, because the Speedo company was born in Australia, a century ago, at Sydney's Bondi Beach.

When I was a kid, we grew up with navy-blue Speedo "swimming costumes" (as we used to say). They weren't yet exactly high-tech, but they had the charm of revealing as much as they concealed. In the following extract from his Unreliable Memoirs, describing his adolescent years in Sydney, Clive James evokes an insalubrious set of tiled swimming pools fed by sea water at Botany Bay:

The water in each pool would be green on the first day, orange on the second and saffron the third. The whole place was one vast urinal. But there were diving boards, sand pits and giggling swarms of girls wearing Speedo swimming costumes. The Speedo was a thin, dark blue cotton one-piece affair whose shoulder straps some of the girls tied together behind with a ribbon so as to tauten the fabric over their pretty bosoms. On a correctly formed pubescent girl a Speedo looked wonderful, even when it was dry. When it was wet, it was an incitement to riot.

I recall vividly the image of teenage nymphs in Speedos, and I agree retrospectively with Clive James when he suggests that, because of the Speedo phenomenon, various potential male swimming champions no doubt spent too much time on dry land:

Falling for — not just perving on, but actually and rackingly falling for — a pretty girl in a Speedo certainly beat any thrills that were being experienced by the poor bastards who were swimming themselves to jelly in the heats and semi-finals. So, at any rate, I supposed. Every few minutes you could hear the spectators roar as they goaded some half-wit onward to evanescent glory. Meanwhile I concentrated on the eternal values of the way a girl's nipples hardened against her will behind their veils of blue cotton...

In their current publicity [display], the Speedo corporation presents its latest fabulous swimsuit product, with an ingeniously sensual name: Fastskin. I wonder if the Scotsman Alexander MacRae — who started out in 1914 by manufacturing underwear, not to mention mosquito nets during World War II — realized what he might be unleashing in the way of watery dreams when he invented Speedo stuff.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Over half a century ago

Starting in 1950, Australia dominated the Davis Cup for a period of four years, first with the duo Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor. Then the young Australians Lewis Hoad and Ken Rosewall took over. In Melbourne in 1953, Hoad and Rosewall beat the US players Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert.

The 1954 finals in Sydney gave Seixas, 31, and Trabert, 24, a chance to get even with the 20-year-old tennis twins Hoad and Rosewall.

And that's exactly what they did, in the first two days, in a series of four-set matches.

Back in those final sunny days of December 1954, my paternal grandparents [Pop and Ma, as we called them] had invited me to drive down to Sydney with them to watch the finals of that Davis Cup tournament at White City Stadium. I seem to recall that we attended the doubles match, on the second day, since that was the kind of social tennis to which we were accustomed back in Grafton. For us, it was hard to imagine a game of tennis in which the server wasn't gazing in the direction of the backside of his partner (often of the opposite sex), crouched near the net. Singles matches appeared to us as unusually solemn and solitary events, in which you didn't even have somebody to chat to during the calm periods while your opponents were collecting the balls for the next stroke.

On 28 December 1954, at the splendid lawn courts between Kings Cross and Edgecliff, I got autographs from the four players.

This 1954 tennis tournament in Sydney remains in the local history books as a much-publicized event, probably because of the hero status of Hoad and Rosewall. Personally, I wasn't greatly surprised to see the young Australians defeated. Physically, they looked like young Australian sportsmen of the kind one could see anywhere. Seixas and Trabert, on the other hand, appeared to me as Martians, particularly when seen up close. They seemed to exude a mysterious mixture of power and sporting wisdom, quite unlike the naive grins of the Aussie kids. I had the impression that, for these superior Americans, tennis was not just a game; it was their business.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Urban visual pollution

What is there in common between an Australian railway-worker turned politician named Joseph Cahill [1891-1959] and a French banker turned politician named Georges Pompidou [1911-1974]? Answer: They both succeeded in disfiguring for decades (forever?) two of the most magnificent natural sites in the world.

— Joe Cahill gave the go-ahead for a particularly ugly elevated motorway and train line along the Sydney waterfront that pollute, visually, the glorious bay known as Circular Quay: the port for harbor ferries, just alongside Sydney's fabulous Opera. To be perfectly honest, I should add that Joe also supported the latter project. So, we might hope retrospectively that he has been lodged in Purgatory rather than in the environmental equivalent of Hell (which is no doubt crisscrossed by motorways and railways).

— Georges Pompidou decided to transform the quiet banks of the Seine into a 13-kilometer motorway that crosses Paris in a west/east direction. For visitors who wish to have a rapid taxi-trip encounter with the glorious City of Light, Pompidou's road is a blessing. But it remains a monument to the short-sightedness of Pompidolean people [note that lovely French adjective, whose Anglicized version might not be spelt here in an academic fashion] who worshiped the goddess Automobile.

In Sydney, which I tend to think of as my native city (although I wasn't born there, and didn't know the place until I was a teenager), I'm thrilled to learn that the Cahill Expressway would appear to be [I must be cautious in my language] a candidate for forthcoming demolition. I well remember the epoch of its construction, in the late '50s.

As a young man, I was alarmed to see all this steel and concrete invading the quiet bay named Sydney Cove: the sacred site of the founding of the colony of New South Wales by Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. Indeed, there's no more effective way of introducing a stark element of desolation into a magnificent landscape than by slashing through it with an elevated motorway, a railway line and a tunnel... as revealed in this lugubrious painting of the Cahill Expressway by Jeffrey Smart:

When you look at Circular Quay from some distance away [from the city end of the bridge, say], the offending structures appear as horizontal bars separating the water from the base of the buildings.

As you get closer, or when you're actually strolling along the edge of the water [at the place where the harbor ferry wharves are located], the Cahill stuff starts to form an ugly backdrop. It hinders passengers arriving on boats from visualizing the waterfront onto which they are about to set foot, and it prevents people on land, at the foot of the buildings, from seeing the boats.

If the Cahill Expressway were to be demolished, then the entire zone between the base of the buildings and the ferry wharves [including the latter, which are antiquated] should be redesigned and transformed into an automobile-free garden plaza.

Throughout the world, busy waterfronts graced by a harmonious and authentic land/water symbiosis are rare and precious. One of the most pleasant places of this kind I've seen [although it's not perfect] is Marseille. I'm convinced that it wouldn't take an enormous amount of imagination and effort to make this a reality in Sydney.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


When I was in central Sydney for a few weeks last year, I was fascinated by the opportunity of walking around in circles for hours and hours, trying to get a feel for the city, and examining the ways in which it had evolved since the '50s and '60s. Inevitably, too, I was constantly tempted to compare the Australian metropolis with the great European city in which I had lived, on and off, for three decades: Paris.

My initial impression of Sydney was a sensation of great physical fatigue, induced by the endless lines of people walking rapidly from X to Y, and from Y to X... where X and Y are entities that mathematicians would refer to as unknowns. After a few days of observation, I ended up imagining that X and Y are probably, basically, train stations and office buildings... but we might need to throw in a Z that designates eating establishments. In other words, the visible population of central Sydney would appear to be moving constantly between these three poles: trains, offices and places where they can eat and drink [which does not appear to mean pubs in the English sense, or restaurants in the French sense].

One thing is certain. Nobody in Sydney simply strolls. Either you're going somewhere, in a determined fashion, or you're not going anywhere... which means that you're located somewhere in a stationary slot, in an essentially invisible state. And funnily enough, I never had the impression that many of the local lemmings were actively engaged in shopping.

In Paris, one often feels that half the population is seated and relaxed, watching the other half of the population moving around, either working or giving the impression that they're working. In Australia in general, and in Sydney in particular, this notion of observing explicitly one's fellow citizens is unthinkable. It would be likened to voyeurism of a perverted kind. In public transport, for example, the general idea is that everybody burrows their head, ostrich-style, into a newspaper or a book. In the streets of central Sydney, it's the same thing. Each person barges stubbornly forwards towards his/her specific destination, eyes fixed on the road ahead, like a runner in a marathon. For a visitor, even the simple task of halting somebody to ask for directions is far from easy, for the outsider has the impression that nobody sees him, or wants to see him. Sydney pedestrians are a robotic race, a little like those TV bunnies that run on long-life batteries.

It's weird to discover the same dense and uniform style of robotic rat-race [I realize that I'm switching metaphorical animals at an alarming rate, and I haven't even got around to kangaroos yet] in the motor traffic on the major road arteries into and out of the city. There's no doubt about the fact that Sydneysiders are going somewhere... but the where and why are not clear.

Curiously, local journalists don't seem to be particularly lucid when called upon to describe their city. Here's a telling specimen, written by a female, in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Sydney is a trophy wife. Like her smug husband, we bask in the glory of association and smooth over the rough spots. Sydneysiders struggle with their glamorous, sparkling city." Really, this is twitter, which no doubt reveals less about Sydney than about the state of the woman who concocted these words, who is probably a "trophy wife" with a "smug husband". In any case, it's absurd to liken central Sydney, metaphorically, to a glamorous female. Sydney, in my eyes, secretes the same kind of unhealthy bird-like sexuality, based solely upon plumage, as a school mistress, an austere business secretary, a uniformed nurse or a policewoman. It's all about permissiveness, or rather the lack of it, and nothing to do with intrinsic sensuality, carefree eroticism or plain fun. In Paris, everybody knows that all kinds of human encounters, often of a sexual nature, come into existence more or less spontaneously within the rich and complex fabric of the city. In clockwork Sydney, this would be unthinkable.

The title of the female journalist's article was Welcome to the CBD: all arteries, no pulse. Borrowing her physiological metaphor, I would say that central Sydney is basically one of the least horny hangouts I've ever encountered.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Magic port of Sydney

I've only left Sydney once aboard an ocean liner, the Bretagne, which sailed from the Pyrmont terminal (now amalgamated into the modernized quarter of Darling Harbour) in the early hours of the first morning of January 1962. Everything about that departure was magic, and remains legendary, indeed mythical, in my memory today. In the context of that departure, there were several signs of imminent events that would shape my life. However, as a naive 21-year-old country lad [whose only significant achievement was three or four years of serious professional experience as a computer programmer with IBM], it was unthinkable that I might have recognized any of these positive omens in the port of Sydney on that final evening of 1961.

The vessel itself had been built a decade earlier for a French company named SGTM based in Marseille. [In the name, Société générale de Transports maritimes, notice the amusing spelling fault: the first r in Transports has been omitted.] Besides, the Bretagne had an almost identical sister ship named the Provence. The Greek company Chandris had purchased and refitted the Bretagne a few months before I sailed from Sydney. This Greek ownership meant that, towards the end of the voyage, we were offered a splendid encounter with Athens. Little did I know that, within a couple of years, I myself would be employed as a sailor and helmsman on a Greek ship, the Persian Cyrus, which stopped for a memorable day or so in the great French port of Marseille. I could not have imagined, either, that I would soon be falling in love with, and marrying, a girl from the French province named Bretagne.

Here's a postcard of the Bretagne under French colors:

Under Greek colors, as I knew her, the vessel was painted white:

Shortly after my trip aboard the Bretagne, the Greeks decided to anglicize her name to Brittany. This must have been an ill omen, for the ship was burnt out in April 1963 at its home port of Piraeus.

I've often thought that stepping aboard a great ship and sailing to foreign lands is one of the greatest experiences I can imagine. Today, I was interested to see that a newly refitted liner, the Pacific Dawn, has just been launched from Sydney.

She's viewed here from the Opera House corner of Circular Quay:

As a child, when I was anguished by dark thoughts of death and the futility of our existence, I often forced myself to conjure up in my imagination the image of a giant ship plowing through the seas, to restore me instantly to a peaceful state of mind. Even today, I still ignore the origins or profound sense of this tactic, not to mention the reasons why it generally worked.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Fences and walls

When people are terrorized (in both senses, figuratively and literally) and their imagination runs out, causing them to lose control of themselves, they build fences, hoping that the demons will remain on the other side. That's what the French did, between the two world wars, when they decided to erect the ridiculous wall of blockhouses, to the north of Metz, known as the Maginot Line:

The Nazi demons simply flowed around one end of this silly barrier.

The most notorious fence of modern times was the Berlin Wall:

Thankfully, most walls are fragile. They have weak spots. And, when a breach was finally found in the ignominious barrier between the two German peoples, the wall disappeared overnight, heralding the start of a new European era.

In Belfast, the Protestants thought of the Catholics as demons, while the Catholics applied this term to the Protestants. And people found a pretty name for the ugly barrier that cuts the city into two camps: the Peace Wall.

In the Holy Land, where a legendary wall around ancient Jericho was once shattered by a trumpet blast from Joshua, today's leaders have thought it necessary to erect a wall to keep the demons out.

In Sydney, John Howard has been so terrified by potential demons on Australian soil that he too decided to build his own little fence:

The greatest surprise with protective fences and walls is that, when they're broken down, the elements out of which they were composed can be transformed rapidly into weapons.