Monday, October 01, 2012

A few of my favourite Melbourne things.

It's our second anniversary, and I have had what may well be the quintessential Melbourne weekend: cocktails vs wine and slow-cooked lamb at Maha, a late-night movie at Cinema Nova, a café opening across the road from my house, parma at my local pub while watching the AFL Grand Final, cricket training and the Complete Works of Shakespeare at the Fringe Festival.  In no particular order, here are some more Melbourne things I'm rather fond of:

◦ Proud Mary ◦ Mitte ◦ Seven Seeds ◦ Campos◦ 
◦Brunswick East Project◦ Sensory Lab ◦
Hardware Société (yes, that's actually tea).

◦ Movida ◦ Cumulus Inc ◦ Cookie ◦ Mamasita ◦ Bar Lourinha ◦
◦Longrain◦ Easy Tiger ◦ Hell of the North◦ Gingerboy◦ Brunetti's◦ 
◦Movida Aqui◦ ◦Maha ◦ Chin Chin◦ Gumbo Kitchen◦ Taco Truck◦ 
◦Los Amates◦ The Commoner◦ The Gem◦ North Fitzroy Star◦ 
◦Pizza Meine Liebe◦ Cutler&Co◦ La Luna◦ Boire◦ Huxtables◦ 
◦Beatbox Kitchen◦ Josie Bones ◦ Gigi Baba◦ 
◦Loafer Bread◦ Camy Shanghai Dumplings ◦
Movida Next Door

◦ The Attic◦ Black Pearl◦ The LuWow◦ Gin Palace◦ Bar Americano◦
◦The Black Cat◦ City Wine Shop◦ Melbourne Supper Club◦ Siglo◦
◦Atticus Finch◦ Polly's◦ Bennetts Lane Jazz Club ◦

◦ MCG◦ Manchester Unity Building◦ Royal Exhibition Building◦ 
◦Westgarth Cinema ◦ BMW Edge ◦ St Patrick's Cathedral◦ 
◦State Library of Victoria◦ Readings Bookshop, Carlton◦ Cinema Nova ◦
The house called Milton.

Everything else 
◦ The Wheeler Centre◦ Melbourne Food and Wine Festival ◦
◦ trips to Perth being exciting ◦Can't Stop the Serenity ◦ visitors ◦
◦ Melbourne Writer's Festival◦ trams◦  Rose St Artist Markets◦  
◦daylight savings◦friends old and new◦ 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Long Earth: what might have been.

The Long Earth is a great idea – humanity suddenly gains access to a potentially infinite, mostly unoccupied string of Earths, each a sidestep along the potential outcomes of all the possibilities that formed this Earth. It’s not time travel (sadly) and it’s not alternative universes (exactly), but it is a fascinating fictional exploration of a number of the scientific ideas about how Earth and all its ecosystems got to, well, here, and what might have happened if we hadn’t. It's also got great SF cred: a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (disclaimer: I don't recall reading any of his works, although I might've) should, by rights, produce an exciting, slightly comic and very human story with a cosmic scientific awareness to back it up. 

Unfortunately the authors seem a little too fascinated with their own great idea – there is a thread of a plot (a quest, of course), and attempts at creating suspense, but these are sidetracked by the temptation to show off the world and all the work that went into it. It’s as if they couldn’t bear to cut out any of the interesting creatures (look, a flying octopus! - no, really, there’s a flying octopus) or ideas (a cult of comedic atheists!).

The exploration of the idea is the strong point of The Long Earth. It doesn’t stoop to stereotype in looking at how the world changes, but has plausible and interesting considerations of the impacts on social, economic and political structures, as well as the practical ways that people would react and adapt. These are all at higher levels though – countries, cities, police forces. Up close to any of the characters, they seem concocted from the basic fantasy recipe book: for the perfect loner hero, take one orphan, add quirky upbringing and secret talent, stir and allow to develop for ten years. I tried to drop my expectations of a Pratchett book before coming to this one, but was surprised that the usual depth and dexterity of his characterisation was missing from so much of it. 

The thin deus-ex-machina quest attempts to anchor the story as we wash back and forth through recent history and across the multitudes of Earths, various side stories spinning off as we pass. Often I was more interested in those side stories, but some never develop, and others work away behind the scenes, their resolutions mentioned chapters later, in passing. Some seem to exist merely to fill narrative gaps: we’ll need bronze here, so we need a forge there, so let’s introduce this guy back here. Tick.

My main frustration with The Long Earth is that it is an ok story about this well-constructed and original world, when it could have been a great story set in this world. A rip-roaring quest, an intense exploration of family and social dynamics in times of change, a series of inter- and over-lapping short stories (ala I, Robot) shifting between that and more... the breadth of worlds provides an awful lot of scope. Instead it’s a thoughtful, reasonably interesting, semi-scientific exploration of what made our Earth what it is, (with an unfortunate and unoriginal diversion into the origin-of-elf-stories trope) let down by some unnecessary weak points*, not quite knowing what story it wants to be, and an incredibly weak ending. It’s barely an ending at all, in fact - it turns out that this is only half of the story and I have been suckered into breaking my GRRM rule.** After a flaccid attempt at resolving the quest enough to finish the book, but leave things open for a sequel, the story just stops. Seriously. I’m trying not to include any spoilers here (the book is only a few weeks old, after all) but there is no ending, no climax, no great revelation or cliff-hanger. It. 

*you’re in a fight with something that can step between worlds and is attacking you from those different worlds, but though you can change worlds yourself you don’t, even to run away – if I’m picking up issues with fight scenes, they must be pretty bad.

** Which is: Never start a series until the author has finished it and any sequels associated with it. I thought about calling it the Robert Jordan rule, but 1. he died, and it wouldn’t be very respectful, and 2. RJ had the end in mind, whereas GRRM has wilfully started multiple series without knowing the end, which I think is potentially fraud.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Cities of the heart.

Disclaimer: I unashamedly romanticise places

I’m in love with a few cities, the latest being Budapest. (Etymologically, two cities for the price of one.)   The  realisation that Budapest was my latest source of fernweh started me wondering about exactly how I get attached to these places anyway: I was there for all of twenty-four hours, and now I want to live there.  Not that I wonder at loving Budapest: the castle, the river, the churches, the crazy bars, the history sloppily stacked in corners, and the requisite amount of grunge - some places (Vienna) are a bit too clean to be lovable.

How hard could Hungarian be, really?

Jerusalem is the first city I loved; the first city I spent time in outside Australia. In Jerusalem I heard it said that everyone has two homes: where they were born and Jerusalem. The city of David is as old and complicated and beautiful and modern and mundane as you might expect, and even now I feel a pang remembering the early morning mist on the hills, the domes and parks and ugly apartment buildings. And more churches, of course, but it was the city itself, its totality, that took a piece of my heart.

I wonder if this happens to other people, metropoleis occupying emotional territory. I am a little uneasy at attachment to things inanimate, but then a city – especially a lovable city – is anything but inanimate, and is, after all, composed predominantly of people, piled up. Their history, their homes, their businesses, their weird and wonderful ways of getting around each other and the odd corners of the earth they have made home.

The internet, as ever, manages to reassure me that I am not alone, although love here ranges from tourist gush* through people growing to love where they have washed up, and all the way to stories of people who arrive in, say, Istanbul, and never leave.  My affection (urbanophilia? philopolisia? philocivit-something?**) is fairly specific: it’s given quickly and irrationally, and leaves me with a hankering to live there. I want to know these cities, learn their sounds (Melbourne’s is the flick of tyres across tram tracks),  and their ups and downs and ins and outs in a way you can only by living in them.

London was next; Paris and Rome are lovely in their ways, but the romantic idea of living in them did not stick.  Venice, beautiful and all, was high maintenance right from the start. London, though, felt like another home again – comes of reading too many English books, no doubt, but this was the city that taught me the rewards of wandering, and looking up, and that I could be quite happy, just me and a city. Cold and wet and grey and brown, but something about the stone and the vapour trails and the random greenery stuck.

Chronologically, Melbourne and I met next. Choosing a city makes one’s affection a little fiercer, particularly if, as with Melbourne, it lives up to expectations.  With cities, monogamy is enforced - you have to commit, uproot, transplant; otherwise you’re just visiting.  It's hard, but of course everything is easier after you’ve done it once, and for all its difficulty, moving teaches that you can survive it, and that it’s rewarding.

Oxford, then; another case of indoctrination, perhaps. Oxford surprised me by feeling more familiar than London, but over a week there I learnt how many of the authors I’d read as a child lived or worked or studied – or all three – in Oxford. Oxford and its country are a sort of watermark in any number of stories, and explicit in so many that there is a Wikipedia article on the subject.  This all makes me rather nervous in describing it, although I did try, once, in, let’s face it, some tourist gush.

Perth is still there, the hometown – I am no cosmopolite and don’t think I could be, since it would mean I’d have to love all cities or none. Every time I travel, and every time I return, having lived away a little longer, I see Perth differently. I finally bothered to look up, last time, and to be in its beautiful places the way I am in the beautiful places of other cities. It will always be a measure, in a way: no weather will be as good, no beaches will be as beautiful, and nowhere will ever be as isolated as the city I love because it was the shape for so much of my life.

* my words are, naturellement , much more than gush, and I much more than a tourist
** Latin fail: darn modern education

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Future Australian Captains: let’s not have any.

1 Corinthians 13:9. For we know partially and we prophesy partially...

And we never bloody learn, apparently. For goodness’ sake, one Test ago we (meaning The Press and a few bloggers) were agonising over whether Clarke’s appointment as Future Australian Captain (FAC) made him unpopular and  whether or not he is now popular enough to have a bandwagon. If he does, 329 runs and beating India will get a lot of people on it.

For the last six? seven? or so* years, Clarke has had to work in the blinding intensity of the public focus that came with that early anointing. Despite all the afore-mentioned angst, it has taken mere days for David Warner to emerge as the next FAC, helped along by Mickey Arthur. Do they not have the Future Saffer Captain issue in SA, or is Arthur already peddling the official CA let’s-anoint-someone-who-does-well-in-the-focus-groups? The perception of favour didn’t help Clarke on the field or in the press, whatever it did for his bank account, and it may well have hindered him in both.  My favourite theory as to why Clarke was hard to connect to, coming across in press conferences as bland and party-line, is that he was well aware of the damage that could be done to chances at captaincy with a stray comment or controversy.

The perception is that Clarke has had a number of controversies, but once you eliminate the FAC status, speculation about form slumps, and stories that do or don’t match his allegedly-bogan background (they usually involve money and subtle snobbery, reverse or otherwise), you’re left with a relationship that went wrong (he who is without sin, etc) and a fight with Simon Katich which he didn’t start. Katich, let’s remember, left a burgeoning cricket career in WA to further his own chances, so he’s not exactly the shining cricket purist himself.**  Clarke hasn’t (that we know of) been in fights in nightclubs, talked to bookies, had dodgy drug test results or in fact done anything except perhaps be a bit too controlled in press conferences and too much / not enough of a bogan to fit stereotypes. I was actually rather relieved when he took a bit of personal leave because it showed that he was, in fact, human.

We don’t know, and never will, what harm Clarke’s status did to any other potential FACs in the team.  For all Steve (we are not worthy) Waugh’s team had a miraculous collection of talent, it also had a number of blokes he could turn to in the field for thoughts on the game and its state at any given time.  How many of the next generation never bothered to develop the mythical and terribly clichéd cricket brain because they never expected to be captain, with the golden boy constantly in front of them?  How much of Katich’s angst came from that frustration?

Look, I don’t love Clarke.   I was pretty cynical about his declaration at 329, thinking he must have known that would play as humility. He has since said that wasn’t the case, and he was focussed on winning, so we’ll go with that. To be fair, no good captain would put their own milestones ahead of the team’s, and, love him or no, I do think he is a good captain. I can’t quite decide whether the changes in opinion come from a greater freedom to be himself, an improved PR firm (no streaks in the hair, I note, and Channel 9 playing Western Sydney backyard cricket footage), some stunning cricket, or all of the above.

Passing the FAC mantle on to David Warner, though, is not good for Warner, the team, or the next generation of cricketers. Surely they should all aim for captaincy, at least at first, and think they have a chance? Why saddle a talent like Warner with all that expectation and extra focus? Does he not have enough to do, working out how to be a T20 star and a Test opener? Why make him also work out, all at once, how to: 

  • comment on the current captain’s form in press conferences, 
  • balance relationships in all of his dressing-rooms, 
  • deal with people calling for his head at the slightest slump in form, 
  • shut off the glare of the spotlight, and the positive and negative things that go with it, 
  • enjoy the fruits of his success without being called a tosser
  • respond gracefully when the person who called you a tosser calls you insecure for wanting respect,  
  • and, somewhere in there, have a life? 

He'd learn those things eventually anyway, being an Australian cricketer, a Test opener and playing in the IPL. Shouldn’t we be rewarding his talent with room and respect and space to grow?  We have Warney to satisfy our national quota of cricket stories in the social pages, not to mention some fresh international imports thanks to the BBL - how about we just let Warner be Warner, and worry about who will be captain next when we actually need one?

* vagueness due to Wikipedia blackout, cricinfo not having FAC appointment as one of its stats

** YES I’m still bitter.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Experiments with Sloe Gin, or, Things I Get Up To When Not Studying.

Speaking of things I like, possibly a bit too much, I was recently introduced to sloe gin. Straight sloe gin works in late-autumn London as an aperitif or digestif or omni-if, but if taken unadulterated in early-summer Melbourne is a bit too warm and sticky to be its lovely tart self, not unlike the rest of us. This is a shame, as it is better for you than regular gin, because 1. it has a lower alcohol content and 2. it has fruit in it, and therefore vitamins.

I asked the Frenchman selling it to me at the fancy wine store if it could be served on ice and received a slightly disdainful look and a raised eyebrow. He deigned to suggest that I try it with bitter lemon or with tonic.  A barman recently asked if I'd like it on the rocks, so I may have been a bit too sensitive about the Frenchman's lack of interest in my drinking dilemmas.

Thanks to some duty free liquor and some spare time, I ended up trying it with a few different things (not all in the one night, I'd like to add):

Sloe Gin and Bitter Lemon
This was the first combination I tried, is still my favourite (after sloe gin in autumnal London, and the Millionaire Cocktail in Edinburgh, that is), and is highly recommended for a warm day. The lemon undercuts the sweetness of the sloe a little but is balanced by the bitterness, so at the right proportions (somewhere around your regular G&T mix, possibly a little stronger) there is a great balance of sweet / sour / bitter. It's terribly refreshing, and since lemon is another fruit, even more delusions of healthiness.

Sloe Gin on Ice
I might need to give the Frenchman some credit here: sloe gin on ice is great at first but when the ice began melting it got too weak and watery for me. Not sure if this is due to the lower alcohol content, or perhaps that it has a less intense flavour than the digestifs I am more accustomed to drinking on ice. I've also only just thought of keeping the bottle in the fridge, which I might try with the next one.

Sloe Gin and Tonic
Not a huge fan of this: I prefer the emphasis in my G&T's to be, unsurprisingly, on the G. At regular proportions the sloe gin was overwhelmed by the tonic, so it ended up a pink, slightly fruity quinine drink. Even at my proportions, (G&t) the tonic was still the stronger element and the sloe flavour was decidedly washed out. Having said that, I prefer my tonics on the stronger side to compensate for lots of gin, so a lighter tonic might produce a different result.

Sloe Gin and Lemonade
I ran out of bitter lemon, but had lemonade left - much too sweet for me, but I might experiment on some friends who prefer their cocktails sweet and fruity. It did, however, inspire me to further fruit experiments.

Sloe Gin, Lemon Cordial and Tonic
Somewhere along the line I realised that Bitter Lemon was basically tonic + lemon, so I attempted constructing my own. This, although better than the straight tonic, was not entirely succesful, as the lemon cordial / tonic combination was simultaneously sweeter and bitterer than Bitter Lemon.

Sloe Gin, Cointreau and various mixers
What with all the back and forth to my liquor cabinet, and thinking about the sloe and lemon combination, I  realised that Cointreau is orange, and since sloe and lemon was working out well, how about sloe and orange? Cointreau has its own sweetness, though, and so these combinations tended to be too sweet for me. Bitter lemon worked best as a mixer with these two, (citrus = vitamin C, yes?) although I also tried tonic, soda and lemonade at various points. This is a much stronger combination, as I made it with a shot of each.

Unsurprisingly, this is about where my bottle of sloe gin ran out. However, during the slow recovery from post-trip work-trauma disorder, I found this photo

I only remember the name because I found the
bill as well. It was that kind of night.
and remembered the ridiculously lovely Millionaire Cocktail I'd had at the Bon Vivant in Edinburgh, a cocktail bar that could've been anywhere in the world, except that they deep fried all of their tapas just so we'd remember we were in Scotland. I'd ordered it because of the sloe gin, and was surprised I'd forgotten it - well, until I remembered how many cocktails we'd had after it. The Millionaire is sloe gin, apricot brandy, Jamaican rum, and lime juice (vitamin C again). Given a faint edge by the rum, this sweet, tangy combination works - and how.

In researching the Millionaire, I've discovered at least ninety cocktails using sloe gin.  I'd dreamed up some particularly evil combinations after being inspired by sloe gin and Cointreau*,  but, as usual, the internet has shown me what an amateur I am.  It can (apparently) be combined with every fruit liqueur known to man, not to mention everything from bourbon to pastis to the ultimate hangover partner, tequila.  I suspect my liquor cabinet is about to get surprisingly fruity.

* I'm still thinking of trying the liquor fruit salad: Sloe Gin, Limoncello, Cointreau, Peach Schnapps and Midori.