The Museum of Old and New Art: Holding up a mirror to art ?

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, people would visit Hobart as part of a broader visit to Tasmania. Some would make a special journey within the island to visit the casino whilst others would be drawn by its greater number of historical buildings.

MONA Hobart, Tasmania

MONA Hobart, Tasmania

However, today, no trip to Hobart is really complete without at least considering a trip to MONA. The Museaum of Old and New Art is a striking and stark building in Hobart housing the collection of David Walsh. Although the term is rarely used now it was once described as a subversive adult Disneyland.

It is difficult to fairly describe the purpose of the museum and it may amount to little more than the sometimes indulgent collection of a multi millionaire. Whatever it may or may not be, it was somewhere I certainly wanted to visit during my time in Tasmania.

One of the things I have enjoyed most during my time in this continent of a country, has been the willingness  of Australians to be honest and mildly confrontational. Actually, it’s not that unlike  the directness you can still find  in parts of the north of England. There are few (if any) sacred cows and there is an unspoken understanding that challenge (sometime very direct challenge) is healthy. That is worth bearing in mind when considering MONA.

MONA Ticket Office

MONA Ticket Office

You  know you are in for something unusual based on the ticket office alone. Set in the otherwise tranquil Hobart harbour, this has a large shocking pink ballistic missile positioned on the roof. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly good reason why this is relevant, nor is there any attempt to explain it. This was a trend which was to continue throughout my visit.

In fairness, if you ask the staff in the box office why they have a pink ballistic missile on their roof, the answer is fairly straight forward  – ‘so people can ask why we’ve got a pink ballistic missile on the roof’.

It’s  a clue to the quirkiness of MONA but it also reinforces  the fact that the collection is idiosyncratic and personal – seeking no permission and offering no explanation. Whilst this has novelty and bravery it can also come across as ‘take it or leave it’ depending on the skills of the particular staff member concerned. I strongly suspect that the anarchic side of MONA would fully endorse such an approach, but it did come perilously close to being self-indulgent for me.

The ferry trip to MONA is great fun, much better than the road route. The catamarans continue the sense of quirky fun with children’s seats in the form of sheep  and an adult sofa in the form of a cow. After about  15 minutes, the ferry disembarks you at the steps to MONA.

MONA Interior

MONA Interior

The building itself is potentially the most impressive aspect of the project. Built deep into the native Sandstone this has cavernous beauty in the same way as some of the London Underground jubilee line stations.

Ironically, some of the museum staff are so intense about the exhibits that they miss the stark beauty of the construction.

After looking at one exhibit, a series of paving blocks removed from the former Hiroshima railway station, I wanted to take a picture of the sandstone excavations. Two of the staff were ‘in shot’. I explained this and asked if they could take one step aside so I could take the picture.  The reply of ‘it’s just a bunch of rock’ was ironic to say the least when standing in front of a highly prized exhibit that precisely met that description.

So what of the exhibits? In some senses it’s difficult to say. It is undoubtedly true that MONA has brought employment, tourism and therefore  significant economic benefit to the area. But arguably it could do so much more with very little effort. If you look at the brochure for MONA and compare it to other collections or museums there is very little in the way of explanation. The purpose, ethos and ambition of the museum is missing and the educational component is silent.

The Fat Car

The Fat Car

There are some very amusing exhibits. The ‘fat car’ presumably making a comment on the sedentary nature of modern life is a case in point. However, the exhibit cries out to be touched with an obvious tactile appeal. This is apparently alien to the museum who preclude touching, smelling, or flash photography throughout the site.

As a result, an entire facet of the exhibit was (in my opinion) lost. There was a theme of lost opportunity developing in my opinion. Of course, if this is merely the whimsical collection of a private individual then so be it – but it does appear to have the possibility to be so much more without risking damage to the exhibits.

MONA does offer the usual commentary via an Apple application however, this focused heavily on the artist, his or her location and history – but very little about their thinking or intent. Perhaps others shared my view that I would have learned more with a little more about the artists intent and a little less about his or her current address.

Some of the exhibits certainly had appeal and scored highly on the ‘art for the sake of art’ stakes. The montage above just made me laugh and feel happy which is a good enough reason to include it in an exhibition. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that there was nothing there that appealed, that certainly wouldn’t be true. However, the exhibits with appeal were (on my visit) in the minority.

Two of the subject matters MONA has stated as being important are sex and death. I don’t count myself as a prude but there was just too much focus on bodily functions, and what classic British understatement might refer to as ‘bawdy end of the pier exhibits. Among the list would be the man hanging himself by his penis, the wall of 90+ plaster casts of assorted vaginas, the public toilet which allows you to gaze up your own plumbing and the ‘poo’ machine. It certainly was a dominant theme, although I’m not certain it added much and could be seen as self-indulgent quirkery which ultimately could undermine the exhibits as a whole.

An interesting question was raised (or reposed) by some of the exhibits. What is the nature of art? Does putting something in a museum of art make it art? The cloaca replicates the entire digestive system resulting in a daily excretion. It’s technically clever, it’s certainly educational (or would be if the stages were explained), but is it art? I fear for my tastes it falls short of that description but that doesn’t stop me admiring its construction and potential.

Holding up a mirror to art

Holding up a mirror to art

One thing my visit to MONA did achieve reverts to the Australian willingness to challenge anything with nothing much off limits. What MONA does – or at least did for me – was to hold a mirror up to art. I didn’t particularly rate the majority of the content, but it did make me question what art means to me, what it contributes and why it is important. I may not have liked significant parts of the exhibits but actually, that isn’t the value in places such as MONA.

Would I go back? Not any time soon, but yes after a period of time. I would encourage most of my friends to include it on a visit to Tasmania. I don’t regret going at all. MONA helped me clarify the spheres of art that appeal to me by showing me some styles and trends that didn’t appeal.

I do hope that MONA continues to flourish but would like to see it educate and provide a little more context within which to evaluate the exhibits. It also made me want to revisit the National Gallery and the Tate in London. Also, I’ve probably reconciled myself to the fact that theatre, music, photography and what could stuffily be called ‘fine’ or traditional art is more to my taste.

In the same way that some say all publicity is good publicity, maybe this visit to MONA was equally valuable. Thank you for such an impressive and awe inspiring feat of construction and for refocusing my tastes. I may not be a frequent visitor but I would certainly recommend it as a thought provoking and sometimes challenging experience.

The lucky devils with contagious cancer.

Tasmanian Tiger

Tasmanian Tiger

In the mid 1930’s the last captive example of the Tasmanian tiger died in an Australian zoo. Ironically, had it not been in the zoo in Hobart it may have survived as it appears to have died from exposure.

The animal was unable to handle to low temperatures and had been ‘locked out’ unable to seek its natural refuge.

Some doubt continues as to whether the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) is extinct in the wild. Several reports of sightings have been reported in remote parts of the island, but none have been documented with supporting evidence. It is fair to say the last photographed sighting was in 1936 with the death in captivity in Hobart zoo.

As we all know Australia is a country noted for its wildlife, particularly its marsupials. Everyone has an immediate thought of kangaroos (not unreasonably given it is nearly universally the symbol of Australia). However, there are plenty of other animals unique to this island continent. The potential loss of the Thylacine is still deeply regretted among Australian naturalists, not least because the species was effectively hunted out of existence.

The Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil

However, one of the most endearing creatures in Australia, also native to Tasmania is fighting a battle of an altogether different kind.

This charming and feisty marsupial (about the size of a spaniel) is suffering from a form of cancer which is decimating the natural population reducing its numbers by 50% in the most densely populated regions.

The condition first came to light in the mid 1990’s although there is some suggestion ut may have predated this by a few years in an unreported state. However, it is fair to say this emblem of Tasmania and unique creature to Australia is fighting for its survival. The most interesting aspect of this tragedy is the nature of the condition afflicting the Devils.

Facial Tumour Disease

Facial Tumour Disease

The disease ravaging the population is a form of facial cancer. Once infected, the animal develops a series of growths around the face and mouth. Once these start to develop the animals fate is sealed with the tumours ultimately growing to the extent that they prevent the animal from feeding and it starves to death.

Although work is focusing on a vaccine, there is no current treatment or preventative medication to alleviate the condition or control its spread. So what has caused such an immediate and unforgiving progress of the disease? Researchers were initially of the view that the cancer may be environmental, although this was largely excluded as a transfer mechanism between animals. Next the possibility of a virus or bacteria spreading the illness was investigated. However, this proved equally unconvincing as an answer.

The most unusual (and when a human population is considered the most scary) transmission route was left – the cancer is contagious being passed from one animal to the other by direct contact.

The example of a cancer passed in this way is exceptionally rare. The only other known case being a form of canine venereal cancer. As a result it has attracted significant research in part to prevent a similar mechanism ever developing in human cancers and partly due to its extremely exotic an novel pathology.

As can be seen from some footage I was lucky enough to capture earlier this week, this is a quiet and shy animal around humans. However, that is far from the case with other Devils. In fact it was the violent fights and disputes between these animals that gave rise to their name. The sounds made when disputing territory or food was so outlandish it was felt that it could only be demonic in nature. Luckily, that characteristic led to a discovery and working hypothesis as to how the cancer is being spread.

Tasmanian Devil Fight

Tasmanian Devil Fight

During the disputes between animals it is not uncommon for one animal to bite the other around the mouth or face. Scientists believe it is this action which is key to the transmission of the cancer. In effect, small fragments of the cancer in an infected animal are passed via the bite and graft into the new host spreading the disease among the population. A transmission route which is otherwise unique among animal cancers. So in some senses the last case identified is still spreading the same tumour material.

However, here is where the Tassie Devils are lucky. Thay have an interesting cancer. In fact it isn’t just interesting it’s unique. They are also small cuddly and endearing which means they are already high on the researchers lists. Then came ‘Cedric’ a west coast Devil who catapulted the study to the top of so many research teams that perhaps they stand a chance at finding a cure.

In simple terms Cedric lasted a lot longer than he should have. The disease took longer to take hold and longer to progress. The only identifiable difference was that Cedric was from the west of the island – most devils came from the east. This led to a project to map the genome of the devils and compare the western and eastern populations. Surprisingly, whilst there is only one species, there have been proven to be significant genetic differences between animals from the west of the island when compared to those from the east.

Now the genomes are mapped and populations of healthy animals have been isolated to ensure that there are some animals (mainly in zoos and sanctuaries) to continue the species and ensure they don’t share the fate of the Thylacine.

Combined Sciences

Combined Sciences

That was the point at which the devils became lucky. Their condition is now of interest to geneticists, zoologists, oncologists, biologists and anthropologists. In addition, the capacity to spread cancer by physical contact (and how to prevent such events in the human world) are critically important to wider medical study. Suddenly, everyone wants to study Tasmanian Devils and find a cure to this hideous condition.

The news so far is mixed, although there is no vaccine, isolating healthy populations does appear to be working. In addition, some early studies suggest that some of the western devils may have greater protection and a very slow progression of the disease. Whilst it isn’t exactly remission, some infected devils may run their natural life span before the facial tumours progress to a fatal stage. All this may buy the animals time.

Progress in this area is also providing interesting research in human medicine. Possible progress in the fields of oncology, neurology and virus transmission can be tracked back to this work. The sad thing is that this effort is still based on the fact that these animals are cute, furry, friendly and endearing with an undeniable charm. I wonder how much we would have bothered if this disease impacted on rattle snakes, crocodiles, skunks or other less engaging species.

I hope Australia and the world can find some way to defeat this condition in a truly beautiful and charming animal. I hope we can also ask ourselves how much there may be to learn from similar study of less photogenic and outwardly attractive animals.

Is there nothing new under the sun?

It is often said that the Bible has some of the best lines in the English Language and along with Shakespeare is the source of many common expressions and phrases.

Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

It was while I was trying to find the source of a quote that ‘there is nothing new under the sun‘ that I attempted to access the Oxford dictionary of quotations. Due to an inadvertent mouse click, I found I had stumbled across the Oxford English dictionary quarterly updates. This sees a group of lexicographers (I wonder what the collective noun for those might be) deciding which new words have made it into arguably the definitive dictionary of spoken English. It was whilst I was reading the most recent updates (2012-2014), that the quote came back to haunt me.

First there were a range of words with mildly exotic sounds (at least I hoped they would live up to their promise). These included hench, humblebrag, binge-watch, listicle, perf and my personal favourite time-suck. None of these were recognisable to me and none had quite made it into polite conversation at least among the circles in which I circulated.

Then I hit a word admitted in 2013 which certainly had entered my awareness – Selfie. Defined as ‘A photograph one has taken of oneself to be shared. Typically on a smartphone shared via social media.

The Selfie Stick

The Selfie Stick

I was just contemplating the Selfie and the now apparently ubiquitous ‘selfie stick’ (an aid to assist with extra distance when taking your own picture) when it led to an interesting coincidental twist.

The rise of the selfie stick over the past six months has been amazing, it initiated a text message to the person who introduced me to the concept. I will state for clarity, I neither own nor desire a selfie-stick. Having a rather dry sense of humour, I advised him of my favoured synonym for the device (not I regret my own work) namely the Wand of Narcissus. During that exchange I was reminded of being taken in by reports of the new and improved only to find that history had merely repeated itself.

Last autumn, when we last spoke, I was ‘tipped off’ about a new medium for recording and listening to music. Apparently, I was assured this was the thing for the lovers of real music having warmth, depth and character lost in the harshness and unforgiving accuracy of traditional digital recordings. Even the teenage son confirmed he was a fan of the new technology sweeping specialist music shops across the UK.

I was given the name of a local shop and given a contact (all very cloak and dagger) with advice to ask for the latest Colvi freleases – any further information was met with a smile and ‘go and see for yourself’. I spent two days wondering what COLVI could stand for. No trade marks, nothing on Google and none of my friends seemed to know – it appeared I was on to something very elitist !

When the day arrived I went to the shop at the time suggested and as described, I couldn’t get near the counter for DJ’s, VJ’s, hip-hoppers, be-boppers and classical music fans. I was impressed at such a wide church of supporters and gradually made my way towards the sign reading ‘The latest Colvi releases’.

Coloured Vinyl

Coloured Vinyl

Imagine my surprise when I reached the front of the queue only to find myself confronted with a real blast from the past – coloured vinyl. Long players, 33’s, albums and 12 inch singles. It was like being dropped though a timewarp to the 1980’s.

What was clear was that these were welcomed by young and old alike. True hi-fiers were expounding their virtues whilst hipsters and teenagers wowed at the warmth and ‘honesty’ of the recordings. Smiling at the ‘joke’ of which I was the butt, I made my excuses – but not before buying a couple myself and wondering the the old ‘record player’ was still in working order.

In fact it would appear this new find is a real rebirth. More than 1 million vinyl records were sold in the UK in 2014 with many bands and artists offering a specialist vinyl release alongside their now ‘traditional’ CD and/or downloads. Over 200 stores specialising in vinyl or analogue recordings have opened in the same time. truly back to the future.

The first selfie ?

The first selfie ?

Then yesterday, the definition and novelty of the selfie was brought into question. In an excellent exhibition focused on the Bohemians of Melbourne one photograph jumped out at me. I had to look closely to see whether this early twentieth century self-portrait wasn’t just a clever staged shot designed to appeal to the selfie generation.

Although the passage of time makes the images of people caught in silver nitrate seem anonymous and somehow distant, it also makes their connection with us all the more obvious. The fact that nearly 80 years ago the desire to capture and share our own images was just as strong as today is reassuringly constant.

Taken in 1939 via a reflection in a mirror this couple could well be the first form of the selfie. I would certainly be interested in any earlier examples. Of course, at the time of the photograph this wouldn’t have had the catchy nomenclature of ‘selfie’ – it would probably have been a self portrait. However, it did remind me that there truly is nothing new under the sun.

So my task for the next couple of months while I research some other photographic history is to see if there has ever been a predecessor to the wand of Narcissus. I’m sure there has been if only I look hard enough.

For completeness, the phrase ‘nothing new under the sun’ is Biblical in origin being a partial quote from Ecclesiastes 1 4-11.

Starting Points: You are here.

hot

A common theme in my visit to Australia has been the willingness for people to move quickly to apologise for the unseasonably cold weather for January. The sentence itself jars to someone for whom January usually means single digit temperatures. However, I’m informed I should have experienced at least one day pushing 40 degrees during my stay.

The mercury or digital app has registered 35 degrees both in Sydney and Melbourne which was enough to allay most concerns that I had somehow missed out on a proper Australian summers day.

My partner had a rough day today attending a funeral. Although this was for the husband of a friend and the direct relationship wasn’t close family, it still had an impact. It was the first funeral he had attended for a while and the deceased was of a similar age which can always be a sobering thought. I knew he was more introspective than usual the evening before posting a couple of lines from Les Miserables (‘And the tigers come at night, with their voices soft as thunder’) as an indication that I recognised the impact.

With the funeral sceduled for early afternoon, I found myself in central Melbourne on my own, trying to navigate the cities tram system. It’s certainly an impressive and efficient form of public transport, claiming to be the largest tram network in the world.

I’m not entirely sure if this is true as similar claims appear to be made by Singapore, Chicago, Vienna and Amsterdam. However, Melbourne does cleverly add the phrase ‘largest double track system in the world’. In any event, whether or not the claim is accurate, disputed or widely accepted fact, the system is effective and much loved.

Melbourne Trams

Melbourne Trams

In recent years, to avoid congestion at intersections and reduce the traffic versus pedestrian interactions, many of the tram stops have been moved back from their original positions.

In doing this, the safety factor may have been raised considerably, however there is a new challenge facing travellers – knowing exactly where you are.

As the roads are based on a grid system, the street names are most prominently displayed at the junctions where they meet, now some distance from the point at which most trams stop.
Not deterred, I walked a few feet to a static map of the city overlaid with the tram routes.

Although all the routes were shown, it was a rather high level with much of the useful detail omitted. Presumably in an attempt to reduce costs and aid with print runs, these maps are the same at each of the tram stops. However, importantly and frustratingly, there was one vital piece of information missing from these standardised route planners. At no point does the map tell you where you are in relation to the network as a whole. There is an implicit assumption that you know where smaller roads and districts are which certainly wasn’t the case with me.

As I negotiated a variety of maps seeking some help from online resources I suddenly received a flurry of messages responding to my posted lyrics. Many of my friends assumed these were indicative of a problem and were asking if everything was ok.  ‘We just  assumed it was about you’ one of them said.

Thankfully, that made me aware of a parallel with the cartographic challenges I faced. In the absence of points of reference and context we can feel lost – not just in the case of physical geography.

Late that afternoon, the impact of the funeral was still fairly apparent to me. Thinking back to the mapping problem we spoke about how he felt and what might be causing some of those feelings of unease. Thinking of my own life experience I hope I was able to put some of those concerns in context. In some regards, it was like finding a known point of reference on a map – once you have that, the landscape becomes more understandable.

Assume Nothing !

Assume Nothing !

What did I take from today? Well, ironically it was more about the way we interpret other people’s actions. The analogy with my own experience of the map reminded me that assumptions are often the children of ignorance.

I was certainly reminded not to assume a known or shared starting point and the greatly undervalued capacity to listen. For me, it is only by listening to (and not just hearing) what is being said that you can hope to gain a shared understanding and context. It sounds little more than common sense, but so many people I know assume that they way they would react to a set of circumstances is universal or the only legitimate response. With a little more maturity comes wisdom – at least that is the hope.

So, something of a quiet, reflective, but ultimately positive day. I must admit I re-learned a valuable lesson during the process of disorientation. That said, to the Melbourne tram map management team I still have three words for your consideration. ‘You are here!’

A retrospective on Martyrdom.

Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo

Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France and the subsequent siege north west of Paris, I heard some comments which gave me reason to pause over how we view our own history.

For clarity, I believe the acts of the extremists in France were and remain abhorrent and I have no wish to act as an apologist for them in any way. However, I also believe it is very easy to caricature some of the actions after the murders as being wholly functions of Islam. A position I heard taken and would challenge with a quick review of our own history.

A frequent criticism of the gunmen’s attitude to the siege which followed their containment focused on their wish to die as martyrs. Some observers have seen this as reflecting on something fundamental unsound about Islam. Undoubtedly, it was a strong desire of those contained in the suburbs of Paris, but that doesn’t make martyrdom unique to any one religion.

Similarly many observers  comment on how much an Islamic martyr may be influenced by the promise of 72 virgins awaiting their arrival in paradise. Whether or not the person concerned believes this is rarely questioned, however the tone typically takes the direction that anyone would be a fool to believe such a promise which somehow confirms their actions as those of a mad man/woman.

In fact, Islamic scholars (like many Christians and Jews) are unhappy with what they argue are simplistic interpretations of their respective texts. The interpretation of 72 virgins being reserved for martyrs is a case in point. Many scholars point out that the Qur’an forbids suicide with Istishhad (the permissibility of martyrdom operations) being contentious and splitting Islamic opinions. They point to the fact that the promise of 72 virgins is made in the Qur’an to all believing Muslim men not just martyrs.

The origins of the word should give pointer, far from an Islamic stem, the phrase martyr derives from the Greek for witness. It has been applied to religious zeolites, (some might describe them as saints, some as extremists, others as the ultimate conscientious objectors) far before the present Islamic jihadists. Nor does Islam have the monopoly on martyrdom.

The first Christian martyr was believed to be Stephen (now Saint Stephen) who was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for continuing to defend Christ against a crown of those who doubted him. Even today, the official Catholic record of Saint Stephen’s life states ‘After such an expression of love, the holy martyr went to his heavenly reward.’ – How  is that so very different to the promises outlined by the arrival of multiple virgins?

Similarly (depending on your point of view), martyrs appear in the Jewish tradition. Many would include the killing of the innocents as the first example, but less contentious historical incidents are also recorded. The martyrdom of hundreds of Jews in Blois (France) over 800 years ago because of their religious beliefs being just one example.

Tudor Persecution

Tudor Persecution

In a recent visit to Melbourne museum I was reminded of those persecuted for their religious beliefs from English history.

Two contemporary images were on display the first (shown here) depicted a Catholic priest officiating at the burning of protestants under the reign of Mary Tudor. The engraving describes the martyrdom of the Protestants. This was strangely juxtaposed with a similar scene where the officiating religion was a protestant and those burned were Catholic. Strangely this made no mention of martyrdom, merely referring to the burning of Catholic dissenters.

This reminded me of Winston Churhill’s comment ‘History will be kind to me; I know because I shall write it’. Strange that the same acts could be described so differently. It did make it very clear that so much is dependant on your perspective, personal beliefs and prejudices.

It was also a timely reminder that our own history is sufficiently scattered with those who have been involved in creating or dying as martyrs that we should reflect on that before ‘writing off’ a whole people, nation or religion based on the beliefs and/or actions of some members of those groups.

As to the desire to ‘die as martyrs’ expressed by those responsible for the Paris siege this is hardly new. Police services around the world will tell you of ‘death by cop’ where some offenders wish to provoke police actions which would result in their death. Although this has no specific religious overtone, it is not that different at a behavioural level.

I have been reassured to see Muslim and Islamic community leaders denounce the actions of those who killed in Paris. I have no sympathy for those who took such appalling actions. There was no justification for violence against Charlie Hebdo, journalists, police or the public. Nor do I support religious martyrdom either historic or current. In my view, too many people of all religions have died in the name of religion.

My only hope is that we don’t ascribe negative acts, views or beliefs on whole communities based on fear. If we take the time to look we can find similar beliefs in our own histories. The last thing we want is further divisions based on the acts of extremists (of any kind) – or they truly have won.

What exactly was wrong with the concept of Seasonality?

12th

Twelfth night came suddenly this year, in fact so suddenly that it passed me by unnoticed. I was travelling at the time from Melbourne to Kennett River along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

For those unfamiliar with this particular route it is the coastal road leading south west out sof the city, much of it constructed in the 1930’s as a construction project to counter the great depression of the times. What you need to know is that it has a small number of small towns and spectacular coastal views. It wasn’t incorrectly named. As a result, my attention was taken up with visits to coves, harbours, inlets and beaches in temperatures approaching thirty degrees. That combined with the fact that we stayed in Kennett River for two days, meant I missed twelfth night. Consequently, when I did see the shops in Apollo Bay their decorations had been stripped bare and perhaps for the first time since childhood I had a sudden pang of regret that I missed the passing of the season.

It was in that frame of mind that I saw a small book store in Apollo Bay with a window display themed around childhood and food – two distinct themes that were immediately juxtaposed in my brain with typically unusual and unexpected results.

The Galloping Gourmet

The Galloping Gourmet

One of my earliest memories relating to food and childhood is that of two chefs well before the era when the phrase ‘celebrity chef’ had first been uttered. The first was an afternoon television programme, presumably before I had started school, called ‘The Galloping Gourmet‘. The host, Graham Kerr would typically rush around the studio, usually immaculately dressed in a highly animated state.

His attraction was threefold from what I can recall. Firstly, I seem to remember he was considered to be exotic and attractive by most female members of my family. His accent was antipodean without being precisely located which was new for British television. This led to the second appeal, his knowledge of unusual ingredients from around the world now ‘readily available at a supermarket near you’. The third was his willingness to be liberal with the addition of dairy produce, typically large quantities of cream and butter.

Fanny Craddock

Fanny Craddock

The second was the scarily forceful Fanny Craddock who’s star was already waning by the time I became aware of her. She too pushed at the boundaries of post war British cuisine championing ingredients grown and imported to beat the limits of the traditional British seasons.

She was also noted for teaching the Brits how to make everyday items which must logically have been cooked, but nobody really knew how. Ring doughnuts are perhaps the best example, made of course, in a flowing cocktail dress. She famously demonstrated this with assistance from her long suffering husband Johnnie. After presenting them to camera Johnnie Craddock uttered the now immortal words ‘Follow these steps and your donoughts can all look like Fannie’s’ – Even at eight or nine I knew a double entendre when I heard one (even though I may not have fully understood it).

After the austerity of the war and the freedom of the 1960’s and 70’s came the explosion of possibilities that was the 80’s. It seems we wanted Strawberries in January and asparagus in November – even if that meant flying produce half way around the world.

So has this proliferation of produce out of season really benefitted us? I can remember the excitement brought about by the taste of the first of the summer strawberries. Fruit that tasted of fruit (allowing of course for the enhancement of memory). Contrast this today with the relatively tasteless produce provided out of season having flown several thousands of miles  to our plates – for me there isn’t really any comparison.

Easter Today, barely halfway through January, the seasonal isles in supermarkets are making way for Easter eggs barely 48 hours after twelfth night. Is it any wonder that the magic of any season is diminished when the run up to it lasts well beyond the sell by date of the goods being consumed in the season itself.

Whilst commercial interests would never tolerate it, I’m attracted to the concept of first night as well as twelfth night. A date before which it is just stupid to be selling festive goods of any kind. I’m certain we might enjoy the celebrations more if we weren’t already heartily sick of them before they have actually arrived.

I sometimes find myself asking if I am a lone voice in this particular wilderness? Then I consider the huge change in the attitude of chefs as a case in point. Far from espousing the importation of out of season goods for novelty value, many top chefs now use the ability to cook with quality seasonal ingredients as a mark of capability.

The Revised Gourmet

The Revised Gourmet

As for those chefs of the 1970’s, some of them have made a conversion in recent years. Graham Kerr, so long associated with the novel and rich became a convert to healthy seasonal ingredients in recent years. (I’m told a heart attack and coronary surgery can have that effect).

However, I’m also reassured that (at time of publication) he is still very much alive and kicking so a few years of decadent living doesn’t seem to have done him lasting damage. In that regard, there is hope, I hope for us all.

So with that in mind, next time you reach for those out of season treats, just think how much better they may taste if we could re-learn the art of patience and wait for them at their best.

 

Selfishness, stupidity or simply small mindedness?

There is a widely recognised possibility that as we age we risk becoming more critical, less open to new ideas and norms and just turning into a grumpy old man or woman.

Cognoscente of those facts, I find myself about to write a ‘things are not what they were in my day’ entry. This immediately puts me on guard against being that miserable curmudgeon who sees no good in the current world. However, in this instance, I think that there is one specific social change which has developed (or at least become more visible to me) over the past twenty years that I wish had not evolved so markedly.

The Me-niverse

The Me-niverse

I make no claims that the observation that people have become more selfish is either new or particularly insightful. However, it now seems to be extending well past traditional boundaries of self-interest and reaching the point where everyone else is excluded from any consideration. Further that this exclusion is appropriate and natural behaviour.

Clearly the world is still turning on its axis, new friendships and relationships are being formed and developed, so this extreme view isn’t all pervasive, however, the direction of travel appears to be to an increasingly individual centric world.

For me, it’s currently some members of generation Y (mid twenties to early thirties today) who show this most markedly. It’s almost as though they exist in their own little bubble – their personal me-niverse. Nothing and nobody that doesn’t impact or interest them directly exists. It’s not merely that they put themselves first, but the most extreme examples appear to have an almost ideological right to ignore and exclude others.

How many times have you seen someone absorbed in their own world, usually associated with a screen or mobile device of some kind to the total exclusion of others. The thought that others may not wish to see, hear or share the experience not registering on the individual at all.  Increasingly, the view seems to be expressed that nobody is forcing those who find the situation inappropriate to stay around – ‘if they don’t like it, they can move’. In their view the individual has a right to do precisely what they want without considering factors beyond their choices.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

In the 1990’s Margaret Thatcher was frequently misquoted as having said ‘there is no such thing as society’. Her full sentence continued ‘ it is made up of individual men and women.’ which rather changed the context.

However, much as I disagreed with many of her actions, it appears that the incessant rise of individualism is leading to the very position the misquote predicts. Charities dealing with ageing and mental health (for example) indicate it is increasingly difficult to engage with large sections of the younger demographic who fail to see any relevance for them.

The right to choice (which I absolutely support), appears to have increasingly obscured the consideration of the greater good (whether that is family or wider society).

The rapid increase in personal choice and the ability to ‘feed’ those choices with on-demand personalised information, data and media clearly marks a step change in personal freedoms. However, in my view it can also define your world too closely. One of the joys of living in the information age must surely be the capability to be surprised by the new and unexpected. Too much personalisation can in my view simply define our own limitations and stop us experiencing the novel, the challenging and the thought provoking.

Rapper Kanye West with Sir Paul McCartney

Rapper Kanye West with Sir Paul McCartney

I find I am increasingly disappointed with the lack of broad spectrum knowledge and critical thinking displayed (or not) by much of the population at the present time. Some may call this a resurgence of stupidity.

I know we all have different levels of capability, intelligence and reasoning. However, regardless of where you fall in those categorisations, the increasingly small personal worlds we create seem to be reducing our capability to absorb knowledge beyond our immediate interests.

One example is the recent collaboration between rapper Kanye West and Si Paul McCartney. The twittersphere has apparently been praising Kanye West for giving a helping hand to ‘up and coming talent’. The majority of tweeters having apparently been away on the day(s) the biggest selling singer/songwriter in history was mentioned in any of their education systems.

Whilst I don’t necessarily think my contemporaries would have been able to quote the lyrics of Irving Berlin, the  overwhelming majority would have recognised him as a major composing force of his generation. Although a narrow and trivial example, it does seem that a system wed to achieving narrow exam success combineed with an apparent reduction in the enquiring mind is not serving people well.

Whether the root cause is lack of interest, intellect or concern, I certainly think the current trend is a step firmly in the wrong direction and an opportunity not only missed, but wasted.

Sydney: The home of the precautionary principle?

One of the complaints heard in the United Kingdom, especially from those living in and around Manchester is the taste of ‘Manc water’. For those who don’t live there, this is a reference to the rather strange and almost metallic taste of the city’s drinking water. This is far from unique in the country with some towns making a positive effort to grow their locations as spas. Cheltenham, Bath, Buxton, Leamington all have strongly flavoured naturally occurring mineral waters. ????A similar phenomena can be observed in Sydney which I first encountered when sampling their drinking water. “Have they quite enough water in their chlorine supply?” I asked cheekily. The strength of chlorination is considerably higher than most other locations in both drinking and public bathing water. It was explained to me that this was due to an outbreak of Cryptosporidium and Giardia in the late 1990’s so the decision was made to increase the concentration of chlorine to effectively counter this. There has never been a matching decision to roll these levels back to more conventional concentrations, presumably as a preventative measure to minimise the risk of any recurrence. Needless to say, my intake of drinking water in Sydney was significantly reduced in favour of the potentially equally suspect bottled waters and soft drinks. I remember being struck with the force of the taxi driver’s insistence that I didn’t remove the luggage from the back of his car when we arrived, but had put this down to his eagerness to secure a tip. Instead, he pointed out that were I to injure myself whilst he was still ‘on hire’ I might make a claim against him or do ‘an insurance job’. I have travelled fairly extensively and even in litigious countries such as the United States, I hadn’t come across this previously. waitressHowever, a number of instances in Sydney made me wonder what on earth is going on in that city? At a restaurant my partner was served a rather mediocre and overly greasy plate of calamari. Not the end of the world but worth mentioning to the waitress when she asked if everything was alright with our meals.  However, far from doing anything constructive, she simply smiled said ‘Oh’ and cleared the starters away with a speed not seen before or since. Whilst paying the bill, the cashier read through my comment card and landed on the question asking ‘What could we do better’. I had replied with words to the effect that if a problem with a meal was pointed out by a customer, make some attempt to resolve the issue. Imagine my surprise when the cashier pointed out their training strictly prohibited such actions as it could lead to formal complaints and potentially legal action. – Had the world gone quite mad? Strangely, once this over-nannying tendency had been spotted, it appeared everywhere in the city. A shrine to the recent siege at the Lindt café had a two man council guard in place. This was despite the fact that the crown were managing themselves without assistance and behaving in an entirely appropriate and respectful manner. Hoardings on buildings under restoration stressed the importance on not walking within 11m of the building at any time as builders may be in the vicinity during the works. All in all it seemed that the precautionary principle was morphing into the preventative principle. I was already slightly perturbed by the message this sent about the public of Sydney and more importantly the perception of those in authority about Sydney’s residents apparent inability to exercise any degree of judgement. That was before the ‘joys’ of New Years Eve celebrations at Embarkation Park. An evening I will not forget but for not entirely positive reasons.

Go over there where you can't see!

Go over there where you can’t see!

The venue was alcohol free (not a problem as I had no intention of drinking at the park) although there was a huge private security presence, plus police and an underlying assumption that there would be trouble. Having celebrated (peacefully and relatively soberly) in Paris, London, New York, Glasgow, Vancouver, and Madrid this level of security and presumed difficulty was new to me. If those other venues can manage without destroying the atmosphere what was sooo special about New Year here ? Suffice it to say the security staff (obscured here for purposes of anonymity) were unprepared, clearly new at the task, unprepared and happy only when you had been ushered to a location with no view of the celebrations. The rationale being ‘there might be a problem if everyone wanted to look at the display from here.’ The irony wasn’t lost on me but they appeared sincere if somewhat misguided. Similar restrictions were ‘imposed’ – don’t stand on the 16 inch wall as walls collapse, don’t stand against the railings, people get stuck in railings, don’t stop on the paved areas as they are used for people to get from point A to point B – it became something of a Kafkaesk joke and in my view reflected very badly on the city and it’s ability to manage events of this kind successfully. A local representative of the city council did listen politely to my concerns and assured me a full complaint and investigation would follow. She carefully took my details (well my name) but no means of getting back to me – so I won’t be holding my breath to hear the outcome of that particular debate. However, I did notice (cynic that I am) that the security staff worked tirelessly to clear areas with a view – strangely enough they kept them clear by assembling in them during the display and watching it on our behalf – very public spirited I thought. However, after a day or two to get over the disappointment and having struck Sydney off the New Years venues for the future I wondered why my experience of this city was so dominated by overwhelmingly unnecessary precautions.  It has been suggested that any unauthorised application of your own judgement or common sense is strictly prohibited. So whilst being the first to recognise the challenges of a city aspiring to host world class celebrations I wonder if quite such a heavy handed and pessimistically paternalistic approach is needed here and not in other cities around the world. I’m certainly glad I visited Sydney and other aspects of the city were incredibly enjoyable but I won’t be back in a hurry. For goodness sake give adults some credit for the considered choices they make and tone the protective tendencies down a notch or two.