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.


No comments: