Saturday, 18 December 2010

ST AGNES AND THE BURNING TRAIN


“There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.” - Vincent van Gogh

A busy morning today putting up Christmas decorations in the house, going out to do some shopping and then back home again for some chores. This evening, however, we went to a friend’s house to dinner. He and his partner live in an apartment on the riverside in the City. She is very nice and cooked a delicious dinner. Another couple was there and we all had a wonderful evening. We heard some lovely music during dinner and a favourite of mine from Sting’s pen brought back some memories.

“St Agnes and the Burning Train”… It is a curious and mysterious title. St Agnes is a virgin martyr of the Catholic calendar. She is the patron saint of virgins, chastity, young girls, engaged couples, rape victims and gardeners. Agnes is also the name of Sting’s grandmother. The piece is instrumental and is found on Sting’s Album “The Soul Cages” dedicated to the death of his father. Most of the songs on it somehow relate to sailing and sea, as his father was a sailor. Newcastle is mentioned a couple of times as this is where Sting grew up.

The burning train refers to a fire on a train his grandmother was on, on an occasion near Christmas when she was coming to visit him. As Agnes was very independent she always insisted on taking the train when visiting. The fire on the train perhaps was a reminder that life is precarious and death is waiting around every corner. Here is something attributed to St Agnes:

“When Death Is Near

I bless you, O Father, worthy as you are of higher praise, who renders me fearless even in the midst of the flames and who fills me with longing to go to you. Lo! I already behold Him whom I have trusted, I am about to grasp what I have hoped to embrace Him whom I have so ardently desired.”


The insistent “chug-chug” of the bass rhythm reminds me of the train, while the flickering melody could well be the flames, as for the lovely harmony, well that’s St Agnes…

Thursday, 16 December 2010

DINING AT THE CHILI CHURCH


“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” – Voltaire

Today was another of hectic activity and a mad rush to get all sorts of matters finalised. I had quite a few meetings, saw several members of staff, dealt with and resolved a couple of students’ appeals and managed a vexing clinic timetabling issue. As well as that, I snuck away to the post office (quite full today for obvious reasons!) and we also had our pre-Christmas Kris Kringle get-together in the late afternoon. Many staff are finishing up today and beginning their Christmas/New Year break, some (including me) are also working next week right up to Christmas.

As it’s food Friday today, I’ll review a restaurant that we went to last Saturday evening. It was the Spice Temple at Southbank, in the Crown Casino Complex. This restaurant is fairly new in Melbourne and has become rapidly very “in” and has received some glowing reviews. It is a styled as a Chinese restaurant, and I quote from their menu:

“Spice Temple is a modern Chinese restaurant, driven by a philosophy that incorporates the traditional values of the best possible service with a deep respect for the highest quality produce as well as a commitment to being at the forefront of visionary restaurant design. The solid foundation of respect for the history and authenticity of our dishes was further developed on recent travels through China. Our menu pays homage to and draws inspiration from the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang.”

Wow! Stirring stuff! Could have been written by a Hollywood screenwriter for the Saturday afternoon epic movie. However, although the dishes we had were “Asian-inspired” they were not particularly authentic, nor could they be described as improvements on the originals. Inspiration was definitely lacking…

Firstly on entering the place I felt oppressed. It was dark, brooding and the music blared 50s and 60s cocktail/lounge-lizard music. Just the thing for a Chinese restaurant (but I guess that was the “modern” part (certainly not for the garish carpet!). The staff (who were mostly young whippersnappers with an affected accent) were uppity and patronising. This did not bode well with me. However, I gave the place the benefit of the doubt and rebuked myself silently for being over critical. We were led to our table which was way too close to the others besides us – no chance of an intimate conversation here unless you planned to wife-swap with the couple next to you. The windows were obscured by vertical wooden slats and they had stripes painted on the glass, which further increased my claustrophobia (as well as effectively hiding the exceptionally good view of the river bank and the Yarra).

The drinks waiter came and he was pushy. He continued to be pushy throughout the evening. I do not drink much – a glass or two of wine with my meal is enough. Otherwise I like to have a plentiful supply of sparkling mineral water with ice. The ice was forgotten and I had to ask for it again and it arrived in water tumbler with a spoon to fish it out in order to place into my water. The smells in the atmosphere were overpowering and reeked of oil and chili. This was a premonition of the tastes that would overwhelm all of the food that night.

We received a spiel from the waitress regarding the way that we would order and eat our food. “You order and we place in the middle of the table for everyone to share…” Not “we suggest…” or “we recommend…” or “it is a good idea to…” I hate being dictated to (especially in a restaurant) and just to be contrary I said to her: “And I will have this and I will have that…” We ended up sharing as we do in other Chinese restaurants – this is the norm, I don’t see why they made such a big song and dance out of it.

These are the dishes we partook of:

Entrées
Cucumbers with smashed garlic and ginger       $8
Aromatic duck salad with tea eggs and coriander     $18
Lamb and cumin pancakes    $14
Main courses
Guangxi style roast pork belly with coriander, peanuts, red onion and sesame seeds    $30
Stir fried grass fed beef fillet with wok blistered peppers and black bean     $42
On the side

Stir fried greens with garlic    $12
Boiled rice    $3 x 2
Desserts

Orange jelly cake with orange blossom fairy floss     $6 x 2
To drink
2006 Shiraz, Olivers Taranga ‘HJ Reserve’ McLaren Vale     $113

Total for two people:    $255


The meals were very hot, not necessarily fragrantly spicy. Even the “mild” dishes I found unpleasantly spicy and hot, so I can only imagine what the “very hot” dishes would be like. And everything was floating in oil. Lots of oil. Dripping with oil… The servings were rather small, but because of the oiliness the dishes were heavy and caused us to bloat. The dessert was insignificant and more suited to a féte than a gourmet restaurant. However, to expect a spectacular dessert in a Chinese restaurant is unrealistic.

I could not get over the pretentiousness of the place. It should do well with the nouveau riche and the young, moneyed scions of distinguished families who have more wealth than experience.

The meal was expensive by most people’s standards, but apparently it is “quite reasonable” for a “Neil Perry Empire restaurant”… I do not mind paying top dollar for an exceptional meal in exceptional surrounds, served by exceptional staff. Unfortunately, the meal was not exceptional, the surrounds were dark and dingy and the staff condescending and up themselves. Three strikes and this restaurant is OUT for us. We went once and we shall not return. For a very good meal, friendly and careful service, authentic tastes and genuine Chinese cuisine one cannot go past the Red Emperor restaurant in Southgate - they even have a web site that works!

Overall a disappointing experience! Our rating 5/10.

AN AUSTRALIAN TRAGEDY


“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” - Kenji Miyazawa

The bad news around the sinking of an illegal boat carrying people to Christmas Island has dampened the festive mood of the country somewhat. This tragedy occurred yesterday as a boatload of asylum seekers, many of them from Iran and Iraq, crashed on the rocky shores of Christmas Island off the West Australian Coast. The cliffs of the Christmas Island shoreline are treacherous and they have claimed many a sailor’s life in the past. Locals know that when the wind is blowing onshore none can land in Flying Fish Cove (sometimes for weeks at a time).

Christmas Island is volcanic and is the top of a submarine mountain sticking out of the Indian Ocean. It is a territory of Australia and has a permanent population of about 1,400 people.  Navy and Customs are everywhere in the heavily patrolled seas around it. For a boat to reach the cove undetected is very unusual. Some of these boats full of asylum seekers are allowed to make their own way to port under escort, but normally, they are intercepted far out at sea and their passengers are taken on board the navy vessel, to be taken to the island. This didn’t happen this time, with the mystery of this tragedy being how that boat was allowed so near the cliffs of the shore in such terrible weather conditions. The navy explained that extraordinarily bad weather had led to very low visibility, and a wooden vessel made radar detection almost impossible.

The boat had between 70 and 100 asylum seekers on board. The 28 dead included 12 men, nine women, two boys, one girl, and four infants (of whom three were girls). It is still unclear how many people were on board the boat when it crashed and it is expected that the death toll could rise. Forty-two survivors have been accounted for. Of these, 25 men, eight women and nine children have been rescued. Two women were flown to Perth in serious condition. This recent incident is part of a record-setting year in migrant boat arrivals into Australia. Some 6,300 asylum seekers reached Australia on 130 boats in 2010. In 2009 Australia admitted a total of 11,100 refugees.

The immediate reaction after the horror that the images of the tragedy engendered was one of guilt and self-examination. There has always been debate over how the Australian Government should process asylum seekers (whilst ensuring their safety). However, there is also the other side of the coin concerning respecting citizens’ concerns over the economic burden of mass migration. Australia has been built on migration and there are still large numbers of foreign-born residents and citizens forming an integral part of its multicultural society. However, in these critical times we live in, with an insecure future, dwindling natural resources and in the wake of the global financial crisis, mass migration into Australia is a political hot potato.

Australia is a generous and compassionate country, ready to accept genuine refugees and asylum seekers, but is now wary of the exploits of people smugglers and economic refugees who may not have the best interests of Australia in mind when they seek to settle here for a short time. In the wake of this most recent incident, calls came for a change in the current government policy designating Christmas Island as the principal refugee processing center. In Australia, similar incidents have in the past sparked the government to rethink its policy on asylum seekers.

And yet, Australia is not alone in its thinking or its political stance against mass immigration. In many developed countries around the world, border control is becoming more stringent and unfortunately even genuine refugees who seek asylum on humanitarian or political grounds are refused entry. In some cases even internal migration is discouraged, with rural “immigrants” being refused inclusion into the urban societies where they wish to move to.

The question is a vexed one and a fine balance must be struck. Australia sorely needs to increase its population and especially so where young, skilled workers and professionals are involved. We have an increasingly ageing population and unless we maintain high levels of our tax-paying workforce, then we shall be in trouble by 2020.We need an influx of migrants that will integrate into our society, into our workforce, into our tax system, into our economic equations. At the same time, we must invest into our infrastructure and resources in order to cope with an increased population.

The answer lies with our politicians, our policies and with our longer-term economic planning. Will we be able to solve the equation? Will we be assured of a future where our lives and our standard of living are of the requisite high level that we have all become accustomed to? Will we be able to show compassion on the one hand but also good long-term planning for our financial stability and survival in the even tougher times ahead?

tragedy |ˈtrajidē| noun ( pl. -dies)
1 An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe: A tragedy that killed 95 people | His life had been plagued by tragedy.
2 A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, esp. one concerning the downfall of the main character.
• The dramatic genre represented by such plays: Greek tragedy. Compare with comedy .
ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French tragedie, via Latin from Greek tragōidia, apparently from tragos ‘goat’ (from the bucolic plays in honour of Dionysus) + ōidē ‘song, ode.’ Compare with tragic.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

AN AUSTRALIAN CAROL


“Five great enemies to peace inhabit with us: Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” - Francesco Petrarca

As Christmas approaches, the pace is increasing and things at work seem to get more hectic as we try to tie up loose ends but also deal with the last demands of this year’s business. Nevertheless, the spirit of the season has started to invade the workplace and Christmas decorations adorn the front desk and a Christmas tree greets visitors at reception. People’s desks are showing signs of the Festive Season ahead, draped with tinsel or bearing miniature Christmas trees. Not only the local students, but even our international students (who are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) enjoy the decorations and seem to get into the joyous spirit of the season, which after all carries a universal message of peace, love and brotherhood of all human beings.

Gifts have started to be exchanged as some staff leave early for their holiday break and this Friday we have a special gathering to give out our Kris Kringle gifts. This afternoon I joined some colleagues at the Alfred Hospital, with which we are collaborating on a research project and we all had Christmas drinks and exchanged good wishes for the festive season.s

Yesterday while going to the train station, my ear caught the familiar strains of an Australian carol that we sang in school. I shall offer this as the poem for Poetry Wednesday:

COUNTRY CAROL
(The Oxen)


As you sit by your wide open window
On that most blessed night of the year,
And you look at your slumbering oxen
In the paddock the wind has burned sere;
And you think of that old Christmas story,
Of the beast and the Heavenly glory
You’ll remember it tells how at midnight,
When the bells are beginning to ring
All the oxen kneel down in their paddocks
As they worship the Heavenly King.

All the oxen so patient and lowing
Bowing down to the infant most Holy,
While you gaze through the bright summer moonlight
All the pasture will glimmer like gold;
And you’ll wait by the wide open window
Just to see if such wonders unfold
Just to see if the oxen are kneeling
When the Christmas bells all begin pealing.

John Wheeler
The first set of carols by William G. James (1895-1977) was published in 1948, the second in 1954 and the third in 1961. The first five carols (Set I) are probably still the most popular of them all. They have become something of an icon in Australian Christmas celebrations. What is it that makes them so popular? To begin with, Wheeler’s words transport Christmas from a chilly Northern Winter to a humid Southern Summer. They are populated with local flora and fauna. Oriental wise men are transmuted into hardy Australian drovers. As for the music, it is simple and accessible, with memorable, “hummable” tunes, which are always enjoyable were enjoyable. James wrote in this vein ‘for the people’, and judging by the popularity of his carols, he succeeded…

The painting above is "Sommerlandskap med Kuer" by Anders Askevold.

HALCYON DAYS


“Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.  (Hurting yourself is not a sin - just stupid.)” Robert A. Heinlein

I had a dinner related to work, to attend tonight and this came after a very busy day. Consequently it was another day of non-stop activity with something happening concurrently. There is a lot to be said about multi-tasking and generally this is what saves me (and the day, in general!).

The yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, is the birthday plant for this day.  It symbolises singularity.  It is a lunar plant according to the astrologers.  The church has dedicated the plant to St Peter.

The Halcyon Days are meant to be a few weeks respite from the wintry and typically blustery weather that is seen in this time of the year. The ancient Greeks named these days after Halcyon, a seabird who once was a woman. She was changed into a bird for a transgression but Zeus took pity on the bird when he heard her sad song as she tried to protect her fledglings in a sea storm. He decreed that these weeks before and after the winter solstice should be kind and mild, thus allowing Halcyon preserve her brood from the severity of the winter weather.

There are several Greek myths regarding these days and the birds that traditionally nest and brood during the winter.

Alcyone was daughter of Aeolus and Aegiale. Her husband was king Ceynx, who was very content with his wife and life, and decided this happiness was reason enough for him to call his wife Hera after the Queen of the gods. He also made Alcyone call him Zeus (King of the gods). This of course, angered the gods, and they changed the couple guilty of hubris into birds as a punishment. Alcyone was turned into a kingfisher, or Halcyon, and Ceynx into a Gannet, or Ceyx.

According to another myth Ceynx drowned in a shipwreck during a trip to consult an oracle. This made Alcyone follow him by jumping into the sea. The gods took pity on them, and transformed them into sea birds.  The Kingfisher has its nesting period during the winter solstice, and during the winter months when the weather is calm for a few days, the Greeks say we have “Halcyon days”. The term has become extended to denote any peaceful time or respite in troubled times.

Monday, 13 December 2010

"UNLEASHED" - MOVIE MONDAY


“Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived.” - Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday we went out briefly in the morning, but we decided to come back as the weather was turning for the worse with some rain on the way and besides which, we were exhausted. It is quite tiring going to shopping centres at this time of the year as they are overcrowded, noisy, hard to park in and so bothersome! I must be getting old…

In the afternoon we watched a movie. It was quite a violent film, but at the same time it had a message. It is amazing how much violence there is in movies nowadays and even though We do not like violent films, but one’s choice is narrowed if one avoids them religiously. Also, one may miss out on quite a good film, whose violent content has a point. We watched “Unleashed” the 2005 Louis Letterier film written by Luc Besson, with Jet Li, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342258/). Jet Li is a martial arts movie star (usually acting in fightfest-type movies) and immediately I saw his name on the cover of the DVD I was skeptical, however, the saleswoman at the video store spoke quite highly of the movie, and after reading the plot, I was convinced to get the movie to watch.

It was a good choice, as there was drama, action (and violence, as I said), poignancy, emotion and tension. This is a departure from what Jet Li movies are like, where mostly he is the fighting machine à la Bruce Lee, and where acting is secondary (or tertiary?) to the martial arts displays. “Untouched” is primarily a human story, with the action and violence displayed an integral part of it, and grimly necessary for the story to make its point.

Danny (Jet Li) is a fighting machine who has been brought up to live and breathe martial arts and to never lose. The man responsible for making Danny the perfect fighting animal is Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow loans shark who has trained Danny from a young boy to live like a dog (hence the alternative name of the film “Danny the Dog”) and wear a heavy metal collar. When the collar is removed, Danny has been trained to attack on Bart’s order and fight, maim, kill until Bart tells him to stop. Danny knows of no other life and despite some tender memories he retains in the deep recesses of his mind, he crouches in his cage until released to do Bart’s evil work.

A “settling of affairs” goes wrong and Danny ends up with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner and his adopted daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Sam and Victoria manage to get Danny to behave like a human again. The power of music and Danny’s inherent musical talent help in this transformation, but unfortunately just as Danny begins to enjoy his new existence, Bart and his cronies reappear to reclaim Danny and to make some shocking revelations about his past.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, especially by the excellent job of acting that Jet Li did. He was able to prove himself as a dramatic actor, not only a martial arts expert. Bob Hoskins was excellent as the villain Bart, while Morgan Freeman, true-to-type, did another fine job as a supporting actor and “good guy”. Young Kerry Condon plays with enthusiasm and verve, but still has to earn some acting stripes (I was not convinced by her portrayal of a musical genius!).

The film is worth watching despite the violence – which in this case has a place. It is actually gratifying in some scenes to see the bad guys really get a good hiding (what am I saying?!). I am sure that this film will touch you and Jet Li’s performance was quite an eye-opener for me.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

ART SUNDAY - MUNCH


“Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need to know of hell.” - Emily Dickinson

Edvard Munch, born on December 12th, 1863 in Löten, Norway and died January 23rd, 1944, was a Norwegian artist whose highly evocative treatment of psychological themes was built on late 19th-century Symbolism. His work greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His most famous painting, “The Scream” (or sometimes called “The Cry” of 1893), can be seen as a symbol of modern spiritual anguish.

Munch was born into a middle-class family that was plagued with sickness and death. His mother died when he was five, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis; Munch eventually depicted the death of his sister in his first masterpiece, “The Sick Child” (1885–86). Munch’s father and brother also died when he was still young, and another sister developed mental illness. “Illness, insanity, and death,” as he said, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”

Munch assimilated French Impressionism after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact from about 1890 with the work of the Post-Impressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In some of his paintings from this period he adopted the Impressionists’ open brushstrokes, but Gauguin’s use of the bounding line was to prove more congenial to him, as was the Synthetist artists’ ambition to go beyond the depiction of external nature and give form to an inner vision.

The artist’s own style fully developed about 1892. The flowing use of line in his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau but Munch used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for psychological expression. This outraged Norwegian critics and was echoed by their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his paintings there in 1892. The violent emotion of his paintings, their frank representations of sexuality, and his innovative technique (with paintings which most people found looking unfinished) created a scandal, which helped make his name known throughout Germany, and from there his reputation spread farther. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892–95 and then in Paris in 1896–97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910.

Munch joined the revolt against naturalistic 19th-century academic painting and also went beyond the naturalism still inherent in Impressionism. His concentration on emotional essentials sometimes led to radical simplifications of form and an expressive use of colour. A number of younger artists, followed his lead and created the school of German Expressionism. His work continues to be relevant as it highlights the typically modern situation of the individual facing the uncertainty of a rapidly changing contemporary world.

Above is his “Separation” of 1900 (Oil on canvas 125.5 x 190.5 cm).  I find this an extremely evocative and expressive painting of a situation most of us have faced and had emotional experiences of. A lover clutches his heart with a red hand, as though it is alight with the flames that consume his breast. His eyes are closed and we see through their blind vision, his beloved fleeing away, like a shade departing for the other life. The painting could have just as well have been called “Orpheus and Euridice” or “Romeo and Juliet”, or “Tristan and Isolde”. The use of colour is particularly striking, with the deathly green of the lover and the distant sunny yellow of remembered happinesses colouring the beloved’s shade. In the foreground a reddish orange vegetative form is like an ever-burning fire of love that mirrors the fires in the heart of the lover. The greys, blues, olives and black of the background set the mournful tones of the scene. It is separation, indeed!