Literary triggers

Reading for pleasure should be a joy in itself. But to read a book and then be drawn into somewhat tangential (and even trivial) thoughts triggered by personal recollections is an added bonus.

That was partly my reaction when reading Jonathan Coe’s marvelous novel “Mr Wilder and Me”. Ostensibly a fictional account about the making of one of Billy Wilder’s final films, set in Greece and France in the mid-1970s, it manages to incorporate many themes – Hollywood, the creative process, migration, family, the Holocaust, ageing, travel – without selling any of them short. Happily, it’s now being made into a film itself, which confirms the strong narrative at the core of the book. I look forward to seeing it when it is released.

For myself, the novel prompted three travel-related memories:

1. Just like a key time in the novel, my first visit to Greece was also a few years after the collapse of the military junta – currency restrictions, banks only open a couple of hours a day, rationing of hot water in the hostel where I was staying, and construction projects abandoned unfinished because of their association with the military regime

2. The narrator’s love of cheese, stemming from an impromptu visit to a Brie maker, brought back memories of many trips to Paris in the 80s and 90s, and visits to bars like La Tartine, and trying the different types of crottin

3. On my first trip to California, I was fortunate enough to have drinks at the Hotel del Coronado, the setting for Billy Wilder’s most famous film, “Some Like It Hot”, and an iconic resort facility in San Diego Bay.

Seemingly unconnected, yet all evoked by a single work of fiction.

Next week: Let There Be Light

Getting out of town

This week, if all had gone to plan, I would have been reflecting on my latest stay in regional Victoria. Instead, Melbourne is under lock-down #6, and my mini-break out of the city had to be abandoned. But at least I managed to enjoy a great lunch and a walk in the country, before day release came to an end, and I had less than 4 hours’ notice to get back to town ahead of the latest curfew.

Greetings from Castlemaine – local art for local people….

Despite the abrupt end to my trip, the few hours of freedom were enough to remind me of the benefit (and downside) of living in a regional town.

First, regional and rural towns provide a great sense of belonging. You can experience a form of community in Melbourne’s urban and inner-city areas, but the connections don’t always run as deep, and they can be quite transactional and event-driven – meeting up to watch sport, going to the pub or catching up for dinner. Whereas, regional communities just “are”, and are always there to offer support, especially during challenging times.

Second, people living in regional areas tend to have a very different perspective and outlook on things, with a healthier approach to work/life balance. They have a greater appreciation of the country, nature and the land on which they live – something we can overlook or take for granted in our urban bubbles.

Third, rural and regional towns come with their own individual personalities and identities – something seriously lacking in our sprawling new suburbs with their increasingly cookie-cutter homes, and distinct lack of character.

The recent pandemic has shown that if you can work remotely, and don’t need to meet colleagues or clients face-to-face, regional centres are very attractive locations (even for a temporary tree/sea-change). But while the locals may welcome your city spending power in their shops and cafes, they may not appreciate the impact on property prices.

However, regional towns can take a while to warm to new-comers, and in these edgy pandemic times, strangers are viewed with as much suspicion as they are curiosity. More than once on recent trips I have noticed the locals almost crossing the street to avoid getting too close to the out-of-towners. Not quite dueling banjos (or the country pub scene in “An American Werewolf in London“…), but enough to suggest visitors are not entirely welcome.

Small towns are also notorious for everyone knowing each others’ business, where you can’t even sneeze without the rest of the village knowing about it. It can get to the point of suffocation, along with repressed emotions and dreadful secrets, especially where local traditions are based on very conservative (even regressive) values, beliefs and prejudices. (I was reminded of this recently when watching “The Last Picture Show”.)

In case this reads as overly pessimistic, I should emphasize that I really enjoy visiting regional Victorian towns (lock-down permitting), as they offer a rich variety of scenery and local produce – even if I can’t get there as often as I’d like these days, it’s good to know they are there. (And my wine cellar would be poorer for the lack of choice…)

Next week: More Music for Lock-down

Expats vs Ingrates?

Just as we were starting to think that Australia has largely beaten Covid, the past few weeks has seen the topic heat up again on a number of fronts, especially the thorny issue of border control.

First, a series of community outbreaks in and around Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne were all traced back directly or indirectly to returning overseas travellers. This again brought the hotel quarantine programme into the spotlight – and given the poor record of Victoria’s HQP management (which led to the Stage 4 lock-down for much of last year, as well as causing several hundred deaths among aged care residents), State Governments are under increased scrutiny not to stuff it up (again).

Second, there are something like 35,000 Australian citizens living and working overseas who are still trying to get home. Since many of them are based in countries with escalating infection rates (and extra-contagious strains of Coronavirus), it’s no wonder there is a lot of circumspection about bringing them back in a hurry. While I have a lot of sympathy for those expats who are stranded overseas, at the same time, they went abroad by choice. There is always a risk that international travel can be disrupted, as we have witnessed with increased regularity over the past 20 years, thanks to terrorism, volcanoes, tsunamis and geopolitical events. However, this has not stopped some expats complaining that their fellow Australians don’t want them back; some have been highly critical of this “smug” attitude: “we’re all right, but you can stay away and fend for yourselves”.

Third, the latest domestic border closures left numerous Victorian residents stuck in NSW. Many of them had only recently managed to travel interstate for the holidays, having just emerged from months of local lock-down. No doubt some of those affected may have a bit more sympathy for those Australians stranded abroad?

Of course, all these border restrictions might not be so hard to stomach if we didn’t have the spectacle of professional sports players being flown in (specially from overseas) to hit a few balls around. The fact that one cohort of these international visitors has managed to bring Covid back into the country is not helping. Nor the fact that a few of these over-paid sports “stars” and their partners appear to be acting like spoiled brats as they endure quarantine in 5-star hotels…..

Talk about being ungrateful.

Next week: The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Notes from Phuket

Last week I was privileged to spend a few days in Phuket, for a wedding. The last time I was there (in early 2011, and for another wedding), I noticed the number of bars and shops that had added Russian to the list of languages on their signage and menus. This time, in the area where I was staying, all of the hoardings around the real estate developments were only written in English, Chinese and Russian – clearly a targeted marketing strategy for the new apartment blocks and resorts currently being built, and further evidence that the island is at something of an international cross-road, if not actual destination.

The wedding party itself was an international affair – guests had travelled from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe, US, Australia, Japan and Thailand itself. Moreover, the demographic was decidedly multicultural, and comprising mainly multiracial and inter-faith couples and families. Not surprising given that nearly all the guests were expats, most of whom had met while we were working in Hong Kong.

The truth is, all of us who were there are beneficiaries of globalisation – choosing to move around the world for work (and for love). Just the sort of gathering that would incur the disapproval and wrath of anti-globalists, racial purists, and religious fundamentalists. Most of them would hate the idea of such a global affair, given the current environment of nationalist, protectionist and segregationist politics that pervades much of the world (Brexit, Trump, Middle East…).

Although the prospect of Brexit was largely lamented by those in attendance, the bigger concern was of course about Hong Kong. While the latest and most dramatic phase of the popular protests there seems to have abated, and although the pro-democracy candidates dominated the recent local elections, there seems to a complete absence of political dialogue between the Hong Kong government and the protest movement.

One school of thought is that the Hong Kong government took it for granted that it could enact the proposed (and highly controversial) extradition Bill. It may have even convinced the Central Government in Beijing that the Bill could pass into Legislation unopposed. If so, that suggests a huge misjudgment and a lack of communication and consultation on all sides.

Of course, should the major experiment in political, economic and social integration (one country, two systems) that is the Hong Kong SAR fail, it will be a major obstacle to resolving the issue of Taiwan (for which it is supposed to have been designed). It would also represent a setback to the concepts of international co-operation, free trade and self-determination, within a framework of mutually recognised and respected co-existence between sovereign states.

Meanwhile, back in Phuket, it was great to sample some authentic Thai food, enjoy the glorious sunsets and embrace island time. Re-visiting Patong after more than 20 years revealed just how industrialised the island’s so-called entertainment area has become – but in the spirit of globalisation, multiculturalism and international trade, at least it doesn’t discriminate: everyone (and their money) is more than welcome!

Next week: The State of PropTech