Archive for March, 2011

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Posted: 24/03/2011 in Architecture, Travel
Tags: , ,

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I stayed in Sydney is was in a pleasantly seedy area, full of the usual kebab type places and Chinese takeaways. My hostel itself was actually on quite a nice street but after walking there in the twilight of the late evening the expectation of seedy vice is palpable in the air. I suppose all big cities are like other big cities.  It seemed a bit like SOHO but with a little of the orient thrown in. I am happy that so many East Asians choose to emigrate to some of Australia because it makes it a little more exotic and you have the opportunity to sample some pretty authentic Eastern cuisine. Something the Australians  excel at is their ability to create a really convincing skid row. Skid row in Oz is much better than other countries. In England you can zone out a bit and develop tunnel vision, but this place is more in your face. In actual fact I stayed in King’s Cross (that’s in London isn’t it?). The King’s Cross here is pretty similar. I turned down a few massages in the whirlpools of vice surrounding my hostel, probably a bad idea because I can still recall the squirming and contorted seat positions on the 12 hours from Melbourne to Sydney. It was strange because on the West coast of Oz I slept like a ..(insert appropriate antipodean simile when clever enough to think of one)
My limited time in Sydney was carefully planned in order to see all the ‘not to be missed’ attractions. My first  morning was probably the most aggressive sightseeing campaign on all my travels. The biggest advantage of backpacking is doing things at your own pace and not feeling the need to cram in the sites, as regular tourists seem to do.  I usually just drift around but Sydney is a place that definitely requires a Lonely Planet and some serious cross references with an accurate map. What I have since classified as turbo-tourism suited my Sydney excursion. It requires a map to list all the main sights, a military meets Pythagoras approach to the route and a pretty brutal time limit for each place.  In the back of my mind I usually feel a crash out  approaching after a couple of hours. There is nothing wrong with the crash as long as you have achieved a suitable list of targets to eliminate, wow, travelling is so romantic! My route in Sydney was to weave through all the important areas of the centre with the final part being a look at the Opera House and a relaxing walk round the harbour to finish.
The Opera House:
It’s certainly unusual and on a sunnier day would probably be dazzling. Unfortunately the day I visited was cloudy so the white skin of each ‘sail’ looked like the slightly dirty white tiles you find in public toilets. I must admit, I have never liked the building. I think it is famous because there are few other things to look at other than the Harbour Bridge. Being an architectural critic as I am, I just think it was built 25 years too early. By this I mean the materials used at the time have dated, especially when you look close up. The concrete and windows all look ugly and institutional, like the canteen of an inner city community college. If the same design were constructed  today I think it would be amazing, it should be shiny and metallic in the same way as the Guggenheim in Bilbao or even the Thames Barrage. I think the design is impressive but it seems to heavy, it needs light, space and some kind of shimmer or reflection. In reality the ‘sails’ look too heavy and the glass beneath looks sunken. The strange thing about this place, some may point to this as being its saving grace, is that looks totally different from all angles. From the front it looks like those strange helmets worn by the Roundheads in the English Civil war. From the Bridge side you get the most impressive view, like a futuristic spaceship. The anticlimax of seeing the Opera House was too much to take so as soon as the sun came out the next morning I went back to have another look. It looked the same but, erm…sunnier.
After seeing the Opera House I walked over to, and underneath the Harbour Bridge. This is seriously impressive. It is a lot bigger than I imagined, you can’t even hear the traffic passing because it’s so far above your head. Between the two sites mentioned is an area called the rocks. This was the original European settlement consisting of warehouses and customs etc. A lot of the area was cut from the rocks…like the Edge Hill Cutting near Liverpool’s Lime Street station. The whole area has been touristed up but it’s still really interesting. I didn’t realise how many of the older buildings were left. They are well restored and pleasant to walk round as there are fewer cars and noise than the rest of Sydney.
Like most things in the New World, it is always interesting to see ‘older’ buildings contrasting with the somewhat more plastic fantastic 20th Century creations. You cannot help but admire the spirit and hope of people who built such permanent structures in what was essentially a massive rock on the wrong side of the world. The disappointing thing for me is to see the gradual transition of solid-looking Victorian and Edwardian architecture into the mindless international style of more or less all new cities. In these places I cannot help but feel that the older solid buildings look in a disapproving manner at all the new creations, and the new buildings avert their gaze out of embarrassment. The only exception I can think of is New York where it is the older buildings that look rightly embarrassed to be in the same company as some of the skyscrapers. The skyscrapers of New York and probably Chicago are more like glass cathedrals than provincial bank headquarters, and the irony is that many of them will probably be provincial bank headquarters. I guess what I am saying is that if you want to do something do it properly.
On the other side of the peninsular is the Darling harbour where I watched the spirit of Tasmania docking. Further in from the port is another tourist zone with cafes and Aquariums etc. This area is a bit tasteless but I guess it’s fun for the kids. I’m sure my visit was too brief to really enjoy everything Sydney has to offer, but it was just a tourist site seeing visit. I think, actually I know, that I prefer Melbourne, it’s more relaxed and cool. A lot of Sydney has that atmosphere like you get in the touristy parts of London…Leceister Square, Piccadilly etc. It lacks character and could be the main street of any place. Sydney just has the advantage, like so many Australian cities of having an amazing location. The Harbour area is beautiful, and the little hills sloping down to the city are quite nice too. From my point of view as a speaker of the same language, and someone who probably shares more cultural and ethnic similarities than I would like to admit, Sydney is just not different enough. I do believe though, that it is on a path, like so many other Australian cities, to being a chic and creative Asia-Pacific hub. As the original colonial blood ties get diluted and people start looking towards Japan, Korea and China, I think it will become a more exciting and dynamic place. It will have an edge over many of its Asia-Pacific rivals because it’s a multi ethnic melting pot with the language of the Global Economy. It also has a decent cultural heritage of decent Universities and a creative arts scene and media. It is an easy culture to get acquainted with without losing your original homeland ties. Most of all though, it is the city in which the TV show ‘Heartbreak High’ was set.

Entertaining, enlighteneing and essential

Within the one broad theme of ‘Idleness’, Hodgkinson manages to encompass so many neglegted yet important facets of life. Our need to work less and play more is justified in a very well written book using examples and quotes from some great thinkers through history.
The greatest strength of this book is that it gives you a warm feeling that things you enjoy – beer gardens, sleeping in late etc – are actually really good for you. The guilt associated with not working so many hours per week, the need to get up early to do DIY, are actually relics from the industrial revolution. This era of mass production with time as a mere commodity can be changed if people take on board the ideas of this book and adjust their lives to suit their soul and not their bank balance.
The book is divided into neat sections, each with a well placed quote, this makes it easy to read when visiting the toilet or having a bath or attending to any other idle pleasure.

Although the tone is whimsical and flippant I think you can take a serious message from How to be Idle. It really made me question the way we haven’t adjusted out lives to the post industrial World.

Why do most people still wake up early to sit in a traffic jam on their way to reach work at the arbitrary time of 9 o clock.

Why do we spend so little time eating a proper lunch when it is proven to extend life and reduce stress?

Why do we feel the need to work such long hours and erode the time we have to actually be human?

Who would I recommend this book to? Well…, everyone really. Unless you are lucky enough to work for yourself and do a 3 day week (like the author).

A meander through Europe – literally

The simple concept of this journey was to walk from the hook of Holland to Istanbul following the two main arteries of Europe: the Rhine and the Danube. The book was written from pre-war notebooks so some of the language is slightly unfamiliar at first. Once you get over your modern rational English bias the gentle pace and detailed descriptions will pull you through the slowly changing landscape of Europe. You will feel the cold of blizzards through dense woodlands and then warm up to drink schnapps in a Bavarian Inn. Despite the poetic prose and flawless rhythm the real strength of this book is the sheer scale and range of knowledge shown by PLF. I was never let down by his ceaseless curiosity, a curiosity which feeds off the assortment of characters he conversed with and the books he pored over en route. PLF is clearly a gifted Linguist and he has more than a passing interest in History, Folklore, Anthropology and Geography. This book also spurred me on to travel into Central Europe and see things for myself. I cannot think of any book which examines so deeply a Europe which many people are starting to forget. Sometimes people read travel literature to find information about where they are going. I recommend this book not only as a guide,  but also as a historical parallel to a continent which has since been ravaged by wars and political upheaval.



A Japanese perspective on the familiar

I came across this book after having read a diverse range of Japanese fiction previously, I am also interested in the mysterious areas of London so this seemed like a good choice.
From the small extracts scattered through these pages I find it strange that Soseki is virtually unknown in the West. Obviously there will be some elements lost in translation but its not difficult to see why he is so highly regarded in Japan.
Soseki spent two years in London studying English Literature, this book is a compendium of various writing and letters he completed during and after his stay. Lack of social contact and his obvious alienation in a land unused to the Japanese led to some wonderful work. Seeing turn of the century London through the eyes of such a gifted writer is compelling and rewarding in equal measure. The descriptions are infused with a deep fascination for history, I cannot remember reading something which captures space and time in such a unique way.  The part about the various characters from History who ‘inhabit’ the Tower of London is particularly vivid. This section is the show piece of the book as it gives an unusual perspective on monarchs we get bored with at school. When I say unusual I am saying that the viewpoint is uniquely foreign and is based on entirely different cultural traditions to our own.
I look forward to reading some fiction from Soseki and hopefully we will be able to find him on more bookshop shelves in England.