Friday, June 14, 2024

Returning to France - liberté, égalité, fraternité

As we prepare to visit France yet again later this year, I had to ask myself why I find it so fascinating. Part of the reason is the influence French culture has had in so many areas. Part of the reason concerns a story told about Zhou Enlai, the former Premier of China. Asked by Kissinger what he thought were the long term effects of the French Revolution, he replied ‘it’s too soon to tell’. Even though it seems he was referring to the student uprising of May 1968, the truth is his answer could more accurately be a reference to the original French Revolution. I am very fond of a long term view – which seems particularly Chinese.

As we prepare to visit Europe again later this year, after a hiatus of over four years due to the pandemic, I was thinking about why I enjoy going to France so much. It’s not just because the buildings are so old and the food and wine is fabulous and you’re surrounded by a sense of the importance of culture. It’s not even because of some of the historic connections between Australia and France, amongst which is the story of Villers-Bretonneux, a small French village, which after being protected by Australian soldiers during World War I, put a sign up in the village school, saying ‘Never forget Australia’ and which still celebrates ANZAC day every year.

Surrounded by a sense of the importance of culture - Societe des Poetes Francais

It also helps that I spent six years at high school in Tasmania learning French. I can still say 'J’ai étudié le Francais pendant six ans a l’ecole', even if I can't say much else. What I can do quite well is read French, so I get by with signs and labels in museums. I was very pleased when once, staying in Vaison-la-Romaine, destination of choice of many Parisian holidaymakers, I managed to ask for directions in French at the local Mairie (town hall) when we had to move our car early the next morning because a large market that blocked all roads was about to take place.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Keeping cities alive – making space for culture and the creative economy

As much as I am attracted to smaller and regional cities, the reality is that our large cities are where creativity (and more importantly applied creativity – innovation) occur, because critical mass and larger-scale proximity encourage experimentation and interaction and new ideas. Just up the road from where I live, the city of Sydney, the largest city in Australia (for the moment, anyway), is grappling with the loss of creative talent and the creative economy which has driven much of the excitement and liveability of the city for decades. Their attempts to address te issue offer useful pointers to other cities, large and small, facing the same issues.

On 12 June 2024, from 6:30pm–8:30pm at Centennial Hall, Sydney Town Hall, a serious line-up of Australian and global speakers – prominent artists, strategists and political decision-makers will discuss what to do about it, to help kick start strategies to turn the situation around.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Based on a true story

The whole idea that something is ‘based on a true story’, raises questions about fiction and lies, reality and truth and the whole relationship between creative interpretation and everyday life. While things are usually exactly what they seem – which is why conspiracy theories, while satisfying, are usually wrong – sometimes things are definitely not what they seem. Having worked in Government for quite a few years I often think that what might look like a malignant conspiracy, is more likely to be incompetence. Government can make big things happen, but usually doesn’t. It might be nice to think that Government could plan grand strategies, but often maybe it’s just bumbling along. Despite this, the answer to the question of whether something is based on a true story, is that everything is based on a true story.

It makes me think of the story about former noted Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, supposedly a response to a question by Henry Kissinger. Asked what he thought was the long term impact of the French Revolution, he reputedly replied ‘It’s too early to tell’. This is a story that is so good and so profound that if it is not true, it needs to be. 

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Dawn service – revisiting a long and personal story

Waking before dawn on ANZAC Day I suddenly thought I’d take part in my own one-person Dawn Service by thinking quietly about those in my own extended family who had been to war. That’s my five uncles all of whom fought in World War 2 – and survived – with a sense of humour and a string of medals. It’s also my family-in-law – my father-in-law and mother-in-law who were both conscripted into the German Army. My father-in-law once said to me ‘I’d had enough of armies’. My under-age father tried in vain to join up to be with the brothers he adored, but his father refused to sign the necessary papers – luckily, otherwise I might not be here, part of a later generation, remembering them all with great sadness.

It's ironic that we make such a big thing of ANZAC Day on this date, which celebrates a pointless battle in a pointless war. Unlike World War 2, where the democratic world stood against the scourge of fascism, in World War 1 it’s hard to imagine two combatants more similar or more interlinked by culture and history. 

Air and ground crew with Beaufort bomber, Camden UK September 1944. My uncle, Jack Cassidy, is eighth from the right in the second row from the front, with the khaki hat cover on.

However too many of our politicians love uniforms and posturing and remembering the dead (who fortunately can’t answer back) while neglecting the living – the veterans harmed in their service to Australia. If it helps with re-election, that’s a bonus.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Returning to reading – finding the best of all possible worlds

It’s a strange time we live in – but then, has any time not been a strange time. I often think that there is no way on Earth that I would ever want to live in an earlier era, before medicine was so developed, when the average life expectancy was in the mid 30s, when life for most people was a short spell of drudgery punctuated by poverty and fear. I'm making the most of it. Lately I’ve started to balance my fascination with the easy-earned opinion of the online universe with a return to reading writing, as distinct from glancing at jotting.

I grew up in the era of mass polio, where every child knew someone who was consigned to an iron lung and fear was everywhere. Then suddenly vaccination appeared and our generation embraced it with relief. In our day the way you became protected from a raft of diseases was to catch them and – if you were lucky enough to survive – when you eventually recovered, you were inoculated. Unfortunately, having spent hundreds of years dragging itself out of the Dark Ages, large chunks of humanity seem hell bent of dragging us back.

 The Boulten and Watt steam engine, Powerhouse Museum.

Easier to be connected than ever before
I like this well-connected time of ours, where I can find information (though not always knowledge) at the drop of a hat – if I’m wearing a hat, that is, which unfortunately in this country of extreme heat most people don’t seem to bother with. It’s a time where it is easier to be connected to those who are important in your life than ever before – no matter where they are on the planet.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Revhead heaven revisited – the possible promise where cars and culture overlap

Here in Canberra the massive convoy called Summernats has just rolled into town for another year. As usual it has incited the locals in a loud mix of love and hate – almost as loud as the car races themselves. Yet, like it or loathe it, cars are at the heart of everyday Australian life. Even if they don’t interest you all that much, or even if you mainly use public transport, you probably also use a car regularly. The Sunday drive, the regional road tour, the daily commute are all as Australian as burnt toast and peeling sunburn. The annual Summernats road extravaganza in Australia’s national capital celebrates this mobile culture. With some imagination, it could be even more – celebrating a central, while challenging, part of contemporary Australian popular culture.

This year the Summernats crowd were even outrageously blamed by a Canberra Times reader for defacing a string of memorials on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin over the new year – in the usual fashion of random comments that no-one cares about, normally only the Greens would get the blame.

A much younger author in the 1950s in front of a car of the era - 'cars have always been at the heart of everyday Australian life. The Sunday drive, the regional road tour, the daily commute are all as Australian as burnt toast and peeling sunburn.'

Summernats brings a mixed bag to the national capital – a large increase in atmospheric polution, a huge jump in stylish haircuts and sleek vehicles and, since last year, a parallel festival of popular culture in hipster heaven Braddon, which this year has been expanded to the whole three days of the main event. There has always been a dark side to Summernats, more so the further back you go, but even last year, but organisers seem to have been actively trying to make the event broader and more inclusive.

Monday, November 20, 2023

As old as the hills and as young as tomorrow - an unexpected insight into a hidden regional Australia

On a short regional road trip to Victoria, I stumbled across something unexpecteda nod back to my past and a taste of an Australia as old as the hills and, at the same time, as young as tomorrow. At a local food and wine festival I encountered Dark Emu dark lager, a collaboration between renowned author Bruce Pascoe and local brewery, Sailors Grave, which uses the seeds from the native grasses Bruce has been reintroducing after hundreds of years.

This week I’ve been in Inverloch in regional Victoria. While we were there we went to the Village Feast, organised by the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and joined the crowds eating, drinking and listening to music. For the last three years the Festival has been expanding into Victorian regional areas and this year it was the turn of Inverloch.

The Sailors Grave Brewery stall at the Inverloch Village feast.

The local produce was terrific – what's not to like about cheese and wine, especially when it's particularly likeable. Chef and presenter Adam Liaw was there, looking every bit as personable as he comes across on television.