Sunday, November 28, 2004

Royal Hobart Show

This year the Royal Hobart Show didn't have its usual bad luck with the weather. Instead the showgrounds were bathed in bright sunshine all day. My sister Julie and I drove out to take a look around the exhibits, tour sideshow alley and dine at the tea rooms.

I was persuaded to take my first trip on a ferris wheel. At age 54 there aren't many new experiences left in life, but this was something new for me. The actual round-and-round motion was easy to get used to, but the first couple of minutes gave me a qualm. While other people were boarding, our seat was hoisted up to the top and sat there for a couple of minutes, swaying back and forth in a most alarming manner.

Julie took a photograph of me at that moment; only the two of us would be aware that what seems like a look of polite interest on my face is actually a grimace of fear as the knuckles turn white on the hand clutching the metal bars around us:

Many things have changed at the Show, but a lot are still the same. The animals are still one of the main attractions – it's often a shock to city children to see just how big cows and pigs can grow! – and there's always a crowd in the grandstand to watch the traditional events like the Grand Parade and the Rodeo. At one point, we blundered into an unmarked pavilion and found ourselves surrounded by prize-winning flowers, preserves and handicrafts; a sight that has changed little since the Show began in the 19th century.

We ate at the tea rooms that have been operated by the ladies of the parish for generations. Very old fashioned, as you'd expect, with the feel of a 1950s diner. A pleasant little diversion.

Wandered into the Tasmanian Government pavilion where all manner of things were on display. One team from the Weights & Measures Department [or whatever they're called nowadays] pounced on passers-by who weren't quick enough and said "How do you know your bathroom scales are accurate? Step on these government-inspected scales and we'll write down your correct weight so you can compare it with the scales at home."

I couldn't remember the last time I bothered to weigh myself, but they were very persuasive. Reluctantly I stepped on the scales, then looked at the slip they gave me. Hmm, in the old measurements that would be -- "Good Grief!" I stared.

The people at the next stand had a gadget that let you see how clean your hands really were. You washed with soap and water till you thought your hands were clean, then they scanned them to show you the true picture.

They invited me to have a try, but I considered that one shock to the system was all I could take in one afternoon.

Another thing I hadn't done before was stay at the Showgrounds until after dark. It was quite interesting to observe the gradual shift in emphasis. The exhibits and demonstrations gradually closed up, while the crowds became younger and more likely to make for the food vans and the amusements.

The music seemed louder around the rides, with the multi-coloured lights lending an air of enchantment to the whole area. We strolled around before leaving, through crowds of youngsters munching on fairy floss and ;painting themselves in the latest fads.

Quite fun, although there was one major difference to visiting the place as an adult – we didn't buy a single showbag all the time we were there.

On a more sedate note, I also visited the State Cinema to see the fourth of the four Jacques Tati movies they are showing this month.

It seemed a bit contrary at first glance that the last film was actually the oldest of the four, but that was reasonable; Jour de Fete was the first film that Tati directed and this is the closest thing he made to a conventional farce. The story is about a travelling carnival visiting a country town in provincial France, and things don't really take off until the focus changes to Tati's character Francois the local postman.

The catalyst is a newsreel shown at the carnival depicting the high-tech (for the day) methods used by the American Postal Service. His pride piqued by a string of joking comments from the townsfolk ("Where's your helicopter, Francois? Heh-heh-heh!"), the postman decides to prove how quickly he can deliver the mail with nothing more than an old bicycle.

Hugely enjoyable chaos ensues in typical Tati style, with many of the visual gags foreshadowing similar sequences in his later movies.

One thing that will grab the attention of film buffs is that this picture is in colour. Jour de Fete was actually shot in an experimental colour process as well as in black-and-white in 1948 but apparently there were misgivings about the colour photography and until the 1990s only the black-and-white version had been seen publicly.

It's not a terribly impressive restoration job. The colour is a sort of faded wash in most scenes, looking like either a very old film that has faded over the years or a monochrome feature that has been "colorized" in a laboratory.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to finally see it – my only previous viewing of the film was on SBS-TV where for some reason it was in black-and-white except for the final two minutes.

Julie's birthday on Saturday, but a very low-key affair since the temperature soared up to 31°C and we were mostly concerned with following Noel Coward's advice to stay out of the midday sun.

The night before we had better luck with a birthday dinner down at the river. A table-full of friends had joined us for a seafood dinner on the wharf and it was perfect. As it got dark, the biggest fullest moon I've seen for ages appeared on the horizon and slowly rose, bathing us in bright moonlight.

Beautiful hardly describes it.

Last night I was re-reading Stanely Weinbaum's short story "A Martian Odyssey" – 70 years old and still a great read.

It appeared in the July 1934 legendary sci-fi pulp, Wonder Stories, and just eighteen months later, in December 1935, he was dead of throat cancer. Surely this is the shortest career of any major writer in the field. Yet, for all its shortness, it was a career that would cast a long shadow on the world of science fiction.

As novelist Theodore Sturgeon notes, "His reaching imagination, his inventiveness, his humor and pathos injected something brand new and vital into sf." Or as genre historian and critic Sam Moskowitz puts it, "The true beginning of modern science fiction, with its emphasis on polished writing, otherworldly psychology, philosophy and stronger characterization began with Stanley G. Weinbaum."

Other writers have changed the face of their genres before: J. R. R. Tolkien in high fantasy, Robert E. Howard in sword-and-sorcery, John Dickson Carr in mystery, and Max Brand in westerns – all come to mind. But these writers developed their skills during the writing of many stories. What makes Weinbaum's contribution to science fiction so extraordinary is that all the literary virtues cited above are already embodied in his very first story.

You may have trouble finding a copy nowadays. Try your local library or you can get it on the Net as an e-book from Renaissance books.

Actor Ed Kemmer has died, aged 84.

"Who?" I hear you ask.

Back in 1950 he starred in a television series titled Space Patrol which went on to become very popular all across America. It was also a radio serial, a comic strip and (in later years) a video and an MP3 disk.

Speaking of his character, Commander Buzz Cory, Kemmer once said "I played it as straight as I could. You don't play down to children. A lot of shows make that mistake. Kids see through that right away."

Later he spent two decades on daytime soap operas, no doubt prompting a lot of baby-boomers to wonder why he looked so familiar.

I've heard a couple of episodes of Space Patrol and they're not bad for the period, but for my money you can't beat the introduction "The BBC presents Jet Morgan in Journey Into Space...."

This is the science fiction radio serial, which had all Britain agog in the 1950s with its thrilling but scientifically accurate adventures in interplanetary space.

Charles Chilton's scripts still make for engrossing listening even today.

Listening to it on an MP3 disc, the temptation to listen to two or three 30-minute episodes at a sitting is hard to resist. Imagine tuning in live fifty years ago and having to wait seven days between each installment. The suspense would have been almost too much to bear.


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

equable equine

Maybe I haven't been feeding the poultry enough. The last couple of days before my sister returned home, the chickens and a few of the geese have been following me when I go to feed the horse.

It's not unusual for them to hang around picking up anything that the horse drops, but this lot have been eating before the horse gets his head in the trough! He's quite tolerant really – if I was as big as he was I don't think I'd let these cheeky little intruders eat my food right in front of me.

There were some less amusing moments while I was baby-sitting the animals of course. Three chickens died at Julie's place, and two ducklings at my house.

But this isn't unusual. Ducklings, chicks and goslings are so fragile that it's a constant wonder to me that any of them survive to adulthood in the wild. That's why Julie grabbed one of the goslings and has been hand-raising her this year.

And she has certainly thrived. In the 2 ½ weeks that Julie was away, the goose has almost doubled in size. A couple of days ago, she got so excited when I went over to feed her that she started jumping up and down in her box. Geese have a rather odd centre of gravity, so during one jump she over-balanced and fell out of the box altogether.

Well, what to do?

I know from past experience that if I ran at her and tried to grab her, she'd probably panic. The result would be a noisy scuffle in the front hall. The complications if she tried to hide in one of the bedrooms didn't bear thinking about. But I couldn't leave her at large in the house.

So I did the reverse of what seemed like the obvious. I dropped to my knees and knelt there, completely still and silent. After a few seconds the goose waddled over and calmly sat down next to me.

I spoke soothingly to her, patted her along the wings a couple of times, then picked her up and put her back in the box with her lunch. "And stay there!"

Sometimes the best action is not to take action.

When Julie heard about this she nodded and said "Many a horse has been caught out in the paddock in just the same way."

Another worrying moment at the office. A letter I thought I'd posted early in the month never arrived, and now that I think about it, I can remember saying to myself "Did I post that letter? I don't remember posting it, but if I didn't then it would still be here."

Not necessarily.

Yet again I seem to have mislaid something between forming the intention and actually doing it. I don't know why I'm doing that so often nowadays.

I never used to be quite this bad, but I'm beginning to distrust my abilities to complete tasks – it's like being absent-minded but more like having gaps into which things just seem to vanish.

Likewise my latest bank statement has me sighing. It supports my late mother's contention that I would not be able to make ends meet after she was gone.

That seemed a bit sweeping to me, but after twelve months I'm beginning to agree with her. It's my own fault of course: the last few months I've bought things out of hand without thinking twice about the matter. Shirts, DVD movies, computer software – one week I bought a new television set which then sat in its box for a month.

The problem of course is twofold: firstly, I don't have the unconscious mental check to spending that I once had, and secondly I don't have any more money coming in despite the fact that the bills are the same or (in some cases) larger due to the lack of the concessions for carers and the infirm that used to apply in some cases.

Obviously it's time to put on the brakes and return to the old-fashioned virtues of thrift, restraint and prudence. Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it also helps keep us out of the bankruptcy courts.

I haven't yet seen the two episodes of Firefly that I have on tape. I mentioned this to a friend, and he raised one eyebrow: "A suggestion. Watch them in reverse order!" Oh, I said, you mean they've... "Exactly. The second episode is spent introducing us to characters that all seemed to know each other last week."

Annoying when that happens. The most extreme example I can remember was back in the 1960s with the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon show. For some reason our local television station ran the series backwards, which wouldn't have mattered except that the middle cartoon in the show was a serial – so it began with the adventurers returning home and ended with them leaving on their voyage!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Arts end

The arts season is starting to wind down as we get to the end of the year. Hobart Rep's final production for the year was Table Manners - unless you count their Christmas pantomine.

The second-last show at the Moonah Arts Centre this week was billed as "A Colourful Interlude with the Spondooli Brothers" and features acoustic guitar duo Luke Yates and Brad Dumpleton. Their guitar playing is so good that the tongue-in-cheek patter about their mythical Balkan homeland soon becomes an interruption to the show that is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The programme claims that their music will "sweep you on a journey of moods," blending Gypsy, Spanish, Brazilian, jazz, classical, folk and middle-eastern music into their own unique style. And they're right actually.

Also of note is the third of the Jacques Tati season at the State Cinema, the 1953 comedy Mr Hulot's Holiday. This is the third time I've seen this film, and only the television screening failed to delight. Tati's elaborately choreographed long-shots mean little on the small screen, but in the cinema they had the audience rocking with amusement.

I especially like the first few minutes where Hulot is not visible, but the camera is following the misadventures of a little two-seater car that could belong to nobody but Hulot.

I think it was Terry Jones who said that Tati's films aren't actually silent, but they possess many of the virtues of silent movies. Amen to that.

No luck with seeing any more of the aurora. Cloud and drizzle the next day meant any stargazing was out of the question. Still, it's not as though I've never seen it before. (I met a woman once who had seen ball-lightning – "I 'm really envious!" I told her.)

Saturday I felt a little strange at the end of the day. Finally I realised that I had gone two days without speaking to anybody except strangers. I have been so accustomed in recent years to having to fit everything into my busy schedule that it took a while to realise that was what was different.

For once I had not had contact (unless you count an SMS message from my sister) with family, friends or acquaintances. This must be what it is like to be "a solitary man" as the old song puts it.

McKay's Bookstop, the old-established bookshop in New Town, is closing its doors. The business will (probably) open up again somewhere else, but the proprietor is having a big clearance sale next weekend and the following weekend.

But he has a lot of books to shift. I didn't often go in there because it used to make me dizzy. Every wall of the shop was lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling and you could just stand there and pivot round and round, looking up and down until motion-sickness set in.

So what does he do with the ones he thinks won't sell? Well, I drove past there today and there were a few people hanging around the front of the shop, with piles and piles of books on the sidewalk in front of them. I stopped the next time I drove past, and there was a sign above them "Free to a good home"!


Monday, November 15, 2004

Spring action

Maybe it's because it's Spring, but the animals at Julie's place seem to be very active this week. In the morning a couple of days ago, I opened the hen house to let the chickens out, and they tried to rush me. It was like a prison break in an old movie. I managed to hold them back without losing any, but a whip and a chair wouldn't have gone amiss for a minute there.

Then that night I let the dogs out in the yard to run around before I finished. I was standing under a tree in the yard wearing that little headlamp I use at nights there, just looking around in the quiet and the darkness. Then Emma, the hyper-active Border Collie, comes barrelling across the yard at full speed and runs into my shins at full speed. "OW!" I bellowed. "What more could I do to make myself visible? Let off flares? Ring a bell?" Days later, there's still a mark on mhy left leg.

I know that Firefly, the new science-fiction programme from the creator of Buffy, only ran for one season in the U.S., but it seems to show a certain lack of faith by the Australian networks to premiere it in the 12:30 time slot after any potential audience for it is probably in bed asleep.

But since they do the same thing with all the Star Trek shows, I guess we aren't that surprised.

Friday morning was the first morning I woke up feeling refreshed for a couple of weeks. Every other night I've variously been late getting to sleep, woken up early, or had a disturbed night (or all three if I'm unlucky).

On Thursday I had a busy day planned so I was hoping to get enough rest the night before; alas, the rooster in the hall decided to start crowing almost two hours before the time I had set my clock radio for.

No jokes about alarm cocks please.

At least my BGL readings haven't been too bad this month. The numbers on my little diabetes monitor are still above 7.0 sometimes but now and again they drop down to 6.8 or 6.7 in the morning, which is quite encouraging.

I have to see my endocrinologist in four weeks, so I had better have some good numbers or he won't be pleased.

Isn't it always the way?

I've been trying to track down one of the Paul Temple radio serials that I'm missing from my collection, "Paul Temple and the Margo Mystery". I did a Google search and discovered I could get an MP3 disc from America that included it with another story that I already have.

It seemed worth getting, even though the other story wasn't needed. Especially since the shop's website laid great stress on how they tried to make their discs the best possible quality, unlike their rivals.

So I sent for it and this week it arrived.

And it won't run in any computer or player that I own.

Murphy's Law seems to apply to MP3s just as to anything else.


Tati and poultry

"I'm going to kill you!"

I was on the other side of the creek, but that was what I made of the sudden cacophony coming from over near the house. I started back across the creek, slightly handicapped by the fact I'd put my galoshes on my wrong feet, but Saj the mastiff had taken off as soon as he heard the uproar.

By the time I got there, he was circling the combatants, trying to break up the fight, but they were paying little attention to him. I ran at them, waving the empty bucket I was carrying, and they reluctantly broke off.

One of them, obviously the aggressor, had an angry look in his eye and a beak full of feathers. The other goose took off down the hill while I kept between them and Saj looked on.

Spring in the barnyard is never a time of peace and quiet but some days are worse than others.

Tuesday night I arranged my schedule around the next attraction in the Jacques Tati film festival. The 1967 comedy Playtime starts off like a reality show about tourists spending a single day in Paris – Art Buchwald wrote the dialogue for these scenes – but gradually Tati's unique sense of humour takes charge. Surely no film-maker has ever got so many laughs from the sound of footsteps!

Tati plays with us at first, keeping his hero Mr Hulot out of view but showing us instead some other men with raincoats and pipes. Hulot [Tati] is one of those characters who somehow manages to simultaneously be the calm eye in the middle of the storm and also be a catalyst for chaos.

The early part of the movie is full of satiric jabs at the glass-and-steel skyscraper world of the day, expressed by the wistful longings of the American tourist Barbara to see more of the real Paris and less of the ultra-modern metropolis.

Towards the end of the film, we get into an elaborate set-piece involving the opening night of a new restaurant. there's an enormous cast who are constantly in motion before our bemused eyes. The sequence seems to go on forever but you don't want it to end. It's simply enthralling.

Finally the movie was over and I was back in the street. Dusk had fallen and the little shops of North Hobart seemed somehow touched by the magic of the streets of Paris. I walked back to the car, music from the film still running through my head

Next week, Mr Hulot's Holiday, once dubbed by David Stratton "the funniest film ever made."

Leaving Julie's house after the evening feed last night, I stared up at the night sky. Was that just an unusual cloud, or was it an elongated streak of light? I leaned against the car for a moment, looking up over the hills.

The news media gave me the answer the next day. Cities as far north as Coonabarabran had been marvelling at the Aurora Australis. And possibly more to come. This is a bit unusual, since auroras are more common during the peak of the 11-year solar cycle but far rarer now, near the bottom of the cycle.

Look south (or north – towards the pole anyway) when you go outside tonight. You never know your luck.

It's been only six days since I cleaned up the ducklings, but they were all muddy again today and looking very dispirited. Cleared out their box but I then had to bathe them before I put them back into clean surroundings.

They panicked and struggled, although at least one of them decided when he was in the basin of warm water that Hey, this isn't so bad after all!

It's quite noticeable that while the chickens don't produce so much mud and muck, the ducklings and the goose turn their surroundings into a virtual swamp. I didn't think this was why they called them "waterfowl" but I could be wrong.

One of the news broadcasts yesterday mentioned it was the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fifteen years! Struth! You realise that means there are people contributing to this website who don't even remember East Germany, let alone the Cold War.

And a fond farewell to Amanda Keller and her television programme Mondo Thingo, which ended its run tonight on ABC-TV.

I'll miss her cheeky comments on popular culture every week.

The final episode was made up of segments from previous weeks, voted on by visitors to the show's website.

"Everything begins and ends at exactly the right place and time", read the small print at the end of the credits. A quote from Picnic at Hanging Rock

Dirty ducks and galloping geese

My favourite radio programme.

Absolutely filthy. That was the only description I could come up with for the ducklings that I was minding for Julie while she was away. They looked glum and no wonder. Not only were they spattered with water, mud and muck but so was everything within six inches of their crate.

I wasn't sure what to do with them while I cleaned out their box, so I ended up secreting them in the wheely-bin (fortunately I hadn't yet filled it with rubbish for this week's collection). But, since it was no use putting dirty ducklings into a clean crate, I had to wash them one-by-one in a basin of warm water.

Needless to say, they were a bit startled by this, but I took a look at them an hour later and things seemed fine. They looked clean and dry and were curled up together on the thick layer of kitty-litter I'd used to line their box.

Meanwhile the gosling is growing up rapidly. She now looks like a young goose rather than a baby. I was amused the first couple of times I took her out into the driveway by the manner in which she followed along at my heels. I could walk down to the front gate and know where she was without looking by the frantic slap-slap-slap sound of webbed feet on the concrete.

But the last time I took her out she was more interested in grazing than following me, and when I went to scoop her up she looked as though she was going to try and waddle off in the other direction. I'm not sure that I'm ready to let her out if she's inclined to go off on her own like that.

I've been on a literal "wild goose chase" in my time but that's a story for another time. Suffice to say I'd rather not repeat the experience.

Rain for the last few days. This is the sort of weather we usually get around the time of the Royal Hobart Show!

Feeding the animals at Julie's house is a muddy experience at the moment. The horse knows what to do – he was waiting in the shed when I took him his lunch today, a nice dry spot to eat.
Hence the expression "horse sense" I guess.

Can you believe that after a long period of cinematic abstinence I've been to two movies in a week? I won a double pass to the new big-budget film biography of Cole Porter De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. It's not exactly a musical (the main focus is on Porter's private life and its difficulties) but many of his songs appear on the soundtrack, sung by contemporary singers like Diana Kraal and Alanis Morisette.

I was initially taken-aback when I collected the tickets and found the screening was at the Eastlands Cinema in Rosny. I hadn't been there before and noticed a few differences to the picture palaces I was used to in times gone by. The seats had more support, almost like on an airliner, and the screen was bigger than I'm used to. Much bigger! After years of watching films on television and DVD, it was startling to be able to see every line and blemish in the close-ups of the actors' faces.

Tim Cox from ABC Radio introduced the screening. A couple of days later I woke up to hear him on the radio reading my e-mail about the movie and agreeing with my suggestion that it would be interesting to hear from somebody who'd never heard of Cole Porter before they saw the film.

In fact he's asked one of the reporters from the rural news show to do it. I hope we don't get a critique of the agriculture in Porter's garden and the blood-lines of his horses!

It would have been nice to see the high-profile guitar quartet Saffire, who were appearing at the Federation Concert Hall tonight. But seeing that was an expensive show on the other side of town, I was content to go round the corner to the free show at the Moonah Arts Centre.

This week we got to hear Musique A Trois, a group made up of pianist Philippa Moyes, bassoonist Alan Greenlees and soprano Charlotte McKercher. They performed an eclectic mixture of French music, mostly centered on birds, animals and the countryside. All the usual names were on the play-list – Saint-Saens, Ravel, Debussy, Satie and Faure (along with a couple I'd never heard of, like Michael Starokadomsky!).

It was all a lot of fun. McKercher was interviewed by the local press before the show, and described the music as ranging "from reflective and lyrical through to very witty and frivolous. It's a very light, not very serious program that should appeal to a lot of people. Most of the music was written for salon performances for small, intimate venues and the setting at the Moonah Arts Centre is perfect for this type of music."

The "young adult" demographic is doing well for Australian-produced science-fiction serials this month on television. Not only do we have the space drama Silversun (inexplicably running on both the ABC and Southern Cross) but today the WIN network premiered the new serial Foreign Exchange in the 4 p.m. time slot.

This is an amusing Twilight-Zone-like concept about a disgruntled teenager in Western Australia who stumbles over a space-warp that lets him step from Australia to Ireland in a split-second. It is, needless to say, a co-production between Australia's Southern Star studio and Ireland's RTE. Has potential, though it lacks the raw dramatic power of Parallax or Thunderstone