About Me

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Hi, welcome to my blog. I'm a writer of poetry, prose and plays but my best known work is children's fiction. My most popular books are the Selby series and the Emily Eyefinger series. This blog is intended as an entertaining collection of thoughts and pictures from here in Australia and from my travels in other parts of the world. I hope you enjoy it. (For more information have a look at my website.)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Nefertiti: the Beautiful Woman Has Arrived in Sydney

Walking along the shore in Sydney's Botanic Gardens you could be excused for thinking that you'd been transported back to Thebes in the Second Millennium BC...no, actually, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Sydney's skyline might spoil the spell. But you couldn't miss the 18 metre tall head of Nefertiti which is the centrepiece of the Handa Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi's grand opera "Aida".

Nefertiti, Mark Thompson's set for the set of Aida
Mark Thompson, the wonderful set designer for many productions here and overseas including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Noises Off", designed both the set and the costumes for this grand production of "Aida".

"Nefertiti" apparently means "the beautiful woman has arrived".

The real sculpture of Nefertiti is in the Neues Museum in Berlin where I saw her last year after having only seen her in photos. She was absolutely stunning despite a couple of nibbled ears and an eye that was never completed.

The real Nefertiti courtesy of the Neues Museum.

The real Queen Nefertiti (1370-1330) was married to the Pharoah Akhenaten, an early monotheist whose memory was largely expunged by subsequent polytheist pharaohs. The sculpture of Nefertiti dates from 1340 BC and was found in the sculptor's studio in Thebes much as it is today.

The name Nefertiti means, "the beautiful woman has arrived". Allowing for a bit of sculptor's licence, I'm sure you'll agree that the name suited her.

Another view of the beautiful woman
(With thanks again to the Neues Museum, Berlin.)

In Mark Thompson's colossal head of Nefertiti he has opened up the missing eye as a "window" for the singers.

Among Mark's many great and prize-winning set designs none could have been better than the one he did for Monkey Baa Theatre Company's production of the play, "Emily Eyefinger", coincidentally and just in passing based on the Emily Eyefinger books written by yours truly. I just thought I'd throw that in.

The third book of the Emily Eyefinger series.

And, even more coincidentally, part of that play took place in the upsidedown pyramid of King Inverticheops in Egypt.

This is Emily Eyefinger herself, played to perfection for many
performances by the brilliant and talented Dannielle Jackson.

Emily Eyefinger, her parents and the archaeologist Dr Samantha Deddybones, 
trapped in the burial chamber of the pyramid of King Inverticheops.

In one of Craig Smith's illustrations in the book I couldn't help noticing a Nefertiti-like sculpture among the other treasures on the right of the illustration. Could this have been the inspiration for Mark Johnson's "Aida" set? Somehow I doubt it but it's an interesting thought.

In the end of the opera, Aida and her lover Radames are sealed in a tomb and sing a wonderful duet as they die of asphyxiation. (Oops sorry, late spoiler alert.) At least in the story "Emily and the Lost Treasure" Emily, her parents and Dr Deddybones escape thanks to Emily's eyefinger. If only Aida had had an eye on the end of her finger she could have survived. Of course then there might not have been an opera.

Being trapped in tombs reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's extremely neurotic character, Eliot Rosewater, who yells out during a performance of "Aida" to Aida and Rademes: "Stop singing and you'll live longer! You're using up the oxygen!" Or words to that effect.

Finally, apologies for not having written a blog for over a year and for not answering some excellent comments and suggested corrections from my last two blogs, all that time ago.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sea Fever in Sydney

Sydney loves a party, especially when massive amounts of fireworks are involved. We are now in the grips of nine days of the Australian Navy's 2013 International Fleet Review. Forty war ships and sixteen tall ships from around the world have come to Sydney to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Royal Australian Navy's fleet in Sydney Harbour on October 4, 1913.

In the midst of all this I flew up to Tamworth to give a talk to kids at Tamworth Library (thanks, guys, I had a wonderful time) and---just my luck---on the flight there I had a window seat on the plane on the right side to see the ships in Sydney Harbour.

A view of some of the ships in Sydney Harbour.
The foreshores of Sydney harbour are filled with spectators lining up to inspect the ships or, like me, just wandering around taking happy snaps of anything that floats. For the maritime tragics, and those of us just out enjoying a good day out, there's a full program of events that began with Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Ray Griggs launch of the fleet review. Prince Harry is checking things out on behalf of the Royal Palace and providing additional photo fodder for the press.

The Royal Navy's HMS Daring and air defence destroyer. The smooth lines reminded me of a stealth fighter aircraft.

The Royal Australian Navy's frigate HMAS Perth. This is the first major warship of the RAN to be commanded by a woman.

A US Navy' guided missile cruiser USS Chosin docked at Barangaroo.

While it's good that we have naval war ships to protect our shores, I confess that I find the tall ships with all their masts and lines and sails are much more interesting to look at. Surprisingly, even the tall ships that aren't replicas but were restored old ships, aren't that old. Of the ships I saw only the Dutch ship Europa was launched before the arrival of Australian's navy in 1913. The Europa was built in 1911.

Some of the tall ships docked among ships on permanent display at the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour.

The Dutch ship Oosterschelde (1918) docked in the background and the brigantine Windeward Bound (1996) in the foreground.

The Picton Castle (1928) drying its sails after sailing into the Harbour in the rain the day before. The Dutch ship Tecla (1915) is on the left.

 The Picton Castle has an interesting history. It was built as a motorised trawler in Wales in 1928 but saw service in World War II as a minesweeper. At one point a mine exploded underneath it and lifted it out of the water but the ship survived. It was also dubbed "the liberator or Norway" when it was forced to put into Bergen, Norway, during WWII due to mechanical problems. Germany occupied Norway but, as luck would have it, the Germans had just retreated from Bergen before The Picton Castle sailed in with its Union Jack flying.

Making frequent appearances in the TV series The Onedin Line and a guest appearance in the movie "The French Lieutenant's Woman", the Soren Larsen was only built in 1948.

 Standing in front of the Soren Larsen a gentleman asked me if that thing sticking forward from the bow was called the bowsprit. I said, "Yes, and did you know that the word 'bowsprit' comes from the Middle Low German word bōchsprēt? Meaning 'bow" and 'pole'?" (Actually I just made that up after I looked it up on the internet.) What I really said was "I think so". He was obviously taken aback. "Oh," he said, "I thought you looked like someone who knew a lot about sailing boats." Embarrassingly, I don't. I just like the look of them. (That's the last time I wear my captain's hat to a boat show.)

New Zealand tall ship The Spirit of New Zealand (1986).

Dutch ship Europa (1911).
There are three tall ships from the Netherlands in Sydney for the Naval Review.

HMAS Vampire on the left was retired from service in 1986 and is part of the Maritime Museum's permanent collection. It's the last of Australian's big gun ships. After this, they've all been equipped to carry missiles. On the other side is the stern of the Picton Castle.

 As of this writing (Monday, October 7, 2013) the International Fleet Review is happening on so check your local listings and see if there's anything for you.

HM bark Endeavour replica is also part of the Maritime's permanent collection.
It was the Endeavour that Captain Cook sailed to Australia in 1770.

If it's tall ships you want to see, I recommend Darling Harbour. When you tire of them you can wander over to the Monkey Baa Theatre Company's home, the Darling Quarter Lend Lease Theatre, where the fabulous children's play, Emily Eyefinger, will be on from October 8th to 11th. (Yes, I'll be there giving a talk after every performance and signing books.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Boston Strong

A week ago I took a short walk through the streets of Boston, my home town. I started at The Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the site of the  Boston Marathon bombings last April. In case you missed it, three people were killed and 264 people were injured near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon. The bombers were Chechen brothers, one of whom died in a shoot-out with the police and the other is on trial.

Bolstering moral or cashing in on a tragedy?
No sooner had the smoke cleared but two enterprising Emerson College students started producing T-shirts that said simply, "Boston Strong". The slogan went viral and now it's everywhere in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, leading to wrangles about who "owns" the slogan but also about the message itself. Where's the verb? 

The scene of the first bomb.

Surely they could have added a simple "is" on their T-shirts to make it "Boston is Strong" or "was" strong or "will be" strong. Linguists and grammar pedants remain perplexed. Is "Boston Strong" a noun followed by a modifying adjective or an adjective modified by an attributive noun? My choice would be for "is". This could save more bloodshed from punch-ups in university cafeterias.
Boston Public Library entrance is across the street from where the first bomb went off.

Why did the slogan catch on so quickly? Probably from previous advertising. There was Lance Armstrong's charity "Livestrong" and the US Army's recruiting slogan, "Army Strong". And then there were two recent hurricanes, Irene and Sandy that left the mottoes "Vermont Strong" and (New) "Jersey Strong" in their swathes of destruction. 

Arlington Street Church with tributes to the victims of the bombs
written on scraps of cloth.

The Boston Marathon is the world's oldest marathon, having been run every year since 1897 and won by such runners as Australia's own Robert de Castella in 1986. You may be thinking, hang-on a tick, how about Ancient Greece, the original Olympics and the Battle of Marathon? How about the story of Pheidippides who ran from Athens to Sparta and back, a distance of 240km (150 miles) said, "We won!" and then dropped dead. Well I'm sorry but, if the story is correct (and let's face it, it probably isn't) that would be an ultra-marathon. Today's marathon distance is now standardised at 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km).

A Boston Strong message.
(There were some unprintable messages to terrorists.)

From Copley Square walking down Boylston Street I came to Arlington Street Church, This church has been the focal point for social issues for many years whether it was the 1967 Vietnam War draft card burnings or, more recently, the first state-sanctioned same sex marriage in the USA in 2004. Tied to the railings beside the church are hundreds of messages relating to the Boston Marathon bombings.

One of the Swan Boats with real swans nearby pretending not to notice.

Across the street is the Public Garden, the first public botanical garden in America, The highlight for kids has for many years been the Swan Boats that glide silently around the artificial pond under pedal power provided by a driver who sits in the swan. The swan boats were built in 1877 by Robert Paget who had been inspired by the image of the Knight in Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, riding a swan across a lake. 

The book that spawned the brood.

The Swan Boats make appearances in two children's books: E. B White's The Trumpet of the Swan and Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Duckings.

The ducklings rarely get a break.

The latter is now such a Boston icon that there are statues of the ducklings in the Garden. The ducklings are beautifully polished by the millions of kids who come to sit on them. I tried---and failed---to get a kid-free photo of the hen and her ducklings.

Even the ice cream van is cashing in. The image on the back is from the book.

Crossing the street I was in another big park, the Boston Common. This dates from 1634 and is the oldest park in America. The early Puritan settlers used it to graze animals but also as a place of public execution. In school we were taught that the Puritans fled from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to avoid religious persecution. What we didn't learn was how intolerant they turned out to be. They not only hanged witches in the park but even people such as Mary Dyer who made the mistake of preaching Quakerism.

The execution of Ann Hibbins, alleged witch.
etching by Frank Thayer Merril (Public Domain) Wikimedia Commons.

The Common has a long history and many monuments such as the wonderful memorial designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American units to fight in the Civil War.

Make way for Duck Tours---the street are clogged with these amphibians
giving tours by land and sea. 

During my time the Boston Common has been a place of political rallies such as demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and various Civil Rights demonstrations.

Boston Common bandstand the place of music and protest---sometimes
one and the same.

Martin Luther King addressing a Civil Rights rally on April 23, 1965.
He's in that circle. (Sadly, I had a very basic camera in those days.)

On the Park Street end of Boston Common is an exhibition of globes called "Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet". The tone was fun but the object is serious: to heighten awareness about global warming.

Australia, and the rest of the world, covered in frogs.

Quite apart from a trip down memory lane, my real objective was a mural painted on an air intake structure in front of Boston's South Station. The mural was painted by the Brazilian identical twins, Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, who paint under the name  Os Gemeos ("the twins"). The brothers began as break-dancers and then graffiti artists of the hip hop culture and this image was undoubtedly designed to stir up controversy---which it has done.

Terrorist or hip hop graffiti artist?

In a city sensitive to Muslim terrorists (the Boston Marathon bombers were Muslim) painting a huge masked figure was bound to bring the anti-Muslim bigots out of the woodwork. Whether it is a terrorist or just a graffiti artist with a scarf to protect his or her lungs, I don't know. Either way the controversy surrounding it must have attracted a crowd to the brother's current exhibition at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

I like the utility door through the feet.

Sadly I didn't have time to see the Os Gemeos exhibition at the ICA but I did see it through the ether. If you can't be in Boston to see it in person before it comes down in November, have a look at this link and watch the video. It's a pity the mural will also be painted over in November and not made a permanent piece of public art.

Note to Australian muralists and graffiti artists: there's an air intake structure at Darling Harbour in Sydney just crying out for a mural.

Me finishing the Boston Marathon before the
bombings---40 years before.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Maine lobstah

The lobster catch is down this year because the water is colder. Through the winter the lobsters go into deep water and hide in mud. When the water gets to a certain temperature they come in closer to shore, start foraging and get caught in lobster traps. If they're big enough---but not too big and not an egg-bearing female---they could end up on a dinner plate.

Lobster sweatshirts and live lobsters for sale at Shaw's Restaurant in New Harbor, Maine.

The only legal way to catch lobsters in Maine is with traps of a specific design, by lobstermen with the right licence and then there are volumes of regulations depending on which area is being fished. As with most commercial fishing, it's hard, cold and dangerous work and the people who do it are from families who have been doing the same for generations.

A typical Maine lobster boat.

I've visited the coast of Maine since I was a kid so I've seen the lobstermen working and I've bought many lobsters. A few years ago my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to get invited along with a lobsterman for a day, working as his sternman. This was a real privilege. The local lobstermen have always had an uneasy relationship with people "from away" (those who haven't lived in the town for a hundred years and, worse still with "summer people"like myself). And lobstering isn't the sort of thing they want an outsider to see at close hand.

The South Bristol Co-op.
This particular lobsterman---friend of a relative who is a local---said he could use a hand for a day. His wife was his usual sternman (men and women are both called "sternmen") but she said she didn't want to go out into John's Bay during the "roly-poly". A strong swell had been predicted for the next day.

Lobsterman looking for his buoys.
The lobsterman finds his buoys (the local pronunciation is "boo-ee" and never "boy"), pulls the traps into the boat, and throws the small lobsters, crabs and bottom-feeding fish back in the sea. The sternman takes out the old bait if there's any left and throws it away and then re-baits the trap. On my day the bait came from a barrel of very ripe alewife, a kind of herring. It was my job to spear them with a bait needle, weaving a string back and forth through each fish and then tying it in place in the trap before the trap was thrown overboard again.

Sorting the catch at the end of the day.
Click here to watch lobstermen sorting a day's catch. 

We set out sometime between four or five a.m. I'd asked before hand what I should wear and the lobsterman hesitated before saying in his very slow Down-East accent: "Nothin' good".  I hadn't intended to wear smart casual but when I got to the boat he handed me bibbed overalls to put over my grungy jeans and sweatshirt. For a short time I think I could have passed for the real deal. Well, at least to someone from away.

A customer at the South Bristol Coop.

Once we hit the roly-poly---and it really was---I began to realise why Mrs sternman wasn't so keen on this gig. It is a real art to staying upright when using both hands to spear fish and bait traps when it's wet underfoot and the boat is constantly turning broadside to the waves. It also wasn't long before I started regretting my breakfast of hash browns, bacon and eggs. I noticed that the captain only nibbled the odd dry cracker all day long. I spent hours sliding around like a drunken jitterbug dancer while struggling not to do the old technicolor yawn and reprise my breakfast.

The wooden half-round traps of my youth have been exchanged for
rectangular wire ones. This display is at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Lobstering is not only a skill bordering on a black art but it's also a very clannish profession. There are only so many lobsters down there and the thought of letting a newcomer drop traps in the lobstermen's yard is not always a welcome one. A turf war a couple of years ago in Maine ended in a couple of lobstermen shooting each other.

Once in a blue moon a blue lobster is caught.
In addition to the very restrictive rules and there's etiquette. For example: you don't drop a string of traps in an east-west orientation when others have set theirs north to south. Lines can get hopelessly tangled and much valuable time lost sorting things out.

We asked my grand niece not to play with her food.
Buoys are colour-coded and most lobster boats display one of their own buoys so that other lobstermen can see that they're only pulling their own traps. And god help anyone---especially a total outsider---who pulls a trap that isn't their own.

The Bath Maritime Museum has an excellent exhibition on the lobster industry.
And it has a lot more. Well worth a visit.
For those in the business who break a rule of etiquette there can be warnings. Back in the village nothing might be said to the offender but if he finds a simple half-hitch knot in his buoy line he can be sure there's a reason for it. If warnings go unheeded, a lobsterman might be "cut". The errant lobsterman goes out and finds his buoys floating free and his traps stuck irretrievably on the bottom of the ocean and goodbye investment.

Inland Mainers (not "Maniacs") hated the lobster licence plates. There were
also those who thought a dead animal was inappropriate as a state symbol.
There is now a choice of images.

On my day out, I'm guessing that we would only have caught forty or fifty lobsters, a lower than usual catch, I was told. When you consider the overhead of maintaining a lobster boat, it may not have been a break-even day.

At today's prices and exchange rate, the average lobster
costs about $A15.00 per kilo.

This is the cost of lobster at the Sydney Fish Markets. And they don't even
have front claws where the best meat is.

Lobsters used to be so plentiful that the local Native American's---okay, Indians---used to put them on their crops as fertiliser. And from the early 1600s when there were English fishing stations on the off-shore islands, it was cod, not lobster, that they were after. In early colonial days the lobsters were fed to the help because they were cheap. At one point servants in Boston rebelled and refused to eat lobster more than three days a week. It's a delicacy now but I can't imagine being forced to eat lobster all the time.

A happy gathering...although maybe not so happy for the lobsters.