Monday, September 15, 2014


 The original version of this piece first appeared in the Albany Advertiser 21/8/2014

This column was going to concentrate on Paris but after three days in rural France I decided there was much to be learnt from those who lived without ready access to the Champs-Elysée.

Le Langon is a small village in the Vendee, home to 1000 people and three high schools. How could that be? Well, the locals have taken advantage of their central position in the region and have made themselves an educational Mecca.

What's more, the people of this commune get together and put on a range of festivals for their fellow citizens and we were lucky enough to be in town for the Gresant, an annual school fete. This included a two hour performance by the entire school of 42 students, a guess the goose's weight, darts competition and a display of old maps found in a storage room.

As you would expect at a similar Australian event in a town this size, the outdoor bar was surrounded by men, with occasional visits from brave and thirsty women. Two men nearby were engaged full time on feeding the fire below two pigs on a spit.

It should be noted that a French commune is not some socialist leftover but simply the French version of local government.

Near Le Langon is a 6000 hectare forest reserve, dotted with small timber huts for picnickers. The park is deemed public property and residents are entitled to camp in it, ride bikes and horses through it and even build cubby houses in it.

This remarkable arrangement occurs because people of the region take responsibility for their privileges and when I asked our host what would happen if someone broke the rules, he said: "Someone would probably speak quite firmly to them and in a severe case the gendarmerie would step in."

The other sweet thing about this rural community was that every year it allows a travelling circus, owned and operated by a family of Romany Gypsies, to camp on public ground for eight weeks and replenish, refurbish and regenerate. At no cost. Albany, did you read that, no cost? (Albany recently lost a circus too soon because it put the oval rates up.)

While the circus is in town, of course, money flows - they have to buy food, water, services, and the children are sent to school for a fee.

When they arrive, their main marquee goes up and becomes a land mark and they add colour and life to the small community.

But what about Paris?

It too has held on to it's old stuff and it would seem that most of it is being renovated. To be fair, it seems most of Europe is being renovated.

Like all previous cities visited, it too had the open top double-decker buses with the multi-language descriptions. These buses are an ideal way to view an historic city. You buy tickets to last for two days and you have the ability to alight at your favoured site and climb back on when the bus returns.

In Paris every road and street sign seems to hold a memory, a story, an historical event or incident. It was like walking through the pages of a history book. Do we do this already in our towns? Not enough, as we tend to name streets and roads after people, members of parliament, mayors, local councillors, not events.

If the ANZAC legend is so important to Albany what about a suburb called Gallipoli with all streets named after the ships that took the troops to Egypt.

Once again the French do food and service well, although expensive, but I must admit, on average, the short blacks were better in Albany.

People have often mentioned French arrogance but I found restaurant staff, for the most part, friendly and very willing to speak a language not theirs.

Because I arrived in Paris via Barcelona and Rome I sometimes ordered coffee in Italian and sometimes Spanish. I was always greeted with the correct response in whatever language I offered. It might be a bit much to ask waiting staff to be multi lingual, but it might help if they learnt a few offerings in the languages of our most numerous visitors.

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Paris streets were mainly filthy and dogs did their thing and no-one picked up.

See what I mean about the street names?

 Outside of La Langon there was a farmer who really knew his onions.

 Highlight of La Langon? Meeting the namesake. Could not meet a nicer Jon Doust.

Monday, September 08, 2014


Much of this first piece originally appeared in the Albany Advertiser7/8/2014

As the plane flew in low over Rome the Coliseum showed itself on the right, out the window between the Russian couple, or were they Polish, hard to tell with a screaming jet engine in your ears.

The landing was not comfortable and when the plane found a place to rest the passengers broke into loud applause. Things got worse.

Inside the terminal, we stood around for over forty five minutes while the baggage collectors scraped our luggage of the walls of the hold. The passengers applauded again as the first item showed itself, a pram, which was never claimed and continued to circulate as cases accumulated around it.

Bags collected, we found the terminal entrance blocked with our fellow travellers, no longer applauding, now laughing at the rain pouring down on a steaming road.

Taxi drivers everywhere, not a brolly in sight, until we got into the city and then the world was full of brollies, ponchos, hats, scarves, all hanging on the arms of economic refugees from the Indian sub-continent.

What is also clear from an ancient and still alive city like Rome is that selling makes everything tick and if you don't know how to sell then learn how to park cars. The streets are full of folk doing both, mostly from Bangladesh.

In conversation with one articulate Bangladeshi we learnt that there were two types: “There’s me, I’m here with a job and permanent residency. Then there’s the others, those you see selling trinkets and sleeping in the parks, they are here illegally, mainly because their original visa has expired but they don’t want to go home.”

And what did Rome inform us that might help Albany?

First and foremost, you can have too many sellers on a street, but, most importantly, hang onto your old hat and any other old stuff, because it's the old stuff that makes you unique. You may not have noticed but most of the new stuff looks the same wherever you go.

Here in the Great Southern we can go back at least 20,000 before Rome and although that history is not full of conquest, plunder and pillage, it does have it's profound and gentle meanings that could benefit a world now in another period of turmoil and madness.

The older the artifacts the better and there are not many creative mobs older than the Menang Noongars who built the fish traps on the northern side of Oyster Harbour.

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I woke early and walked the 1k to the impressive circular centre. It rose up before me and almost immediately water began oozing into my vision and then the rest of me followed with small jerks of emotion. This surprised me but then I remembered that the Colosseo (Italian) was built on the bodies of dead Jews.

When Vespasian and Titus had finished destroying Jerusalem, the Jewish temple and what was left of Judea (70AD), they decided to spend all their treasures on a brand new entertainment complex.

The rain I mentioned earlier continued for four days, with the sky chucking down an ocean of water, washing away any accumulated heat and piles of tourist debris. One major benefit was that the rain lightened many a mood, and many, both local and tourist, engaged in casual conversations while huddled in doorways with complete strangers.

Only one sour note: one prissy goose in a museum doorway told me to move away from her because my poncho was wet. Doh!

Things I noticed about Rome: thousands of Eritreans; the Termini (train station) was packed with scammers, pickpockets and bag snatchers; thousands of Bangladeshi, some were aggressive and intrusive, but most were good humoured and fun; the busking gladiators around the Colosseo didn’t look like they could fight their way out of a plastic bag full of holes; Rome is filthy.

It should be a condition, we decided, of having a stall, or a busking position at a major venue, that you clean up your immediate surrounds.

Finally, Rome reminded us clearly of the massive refugee problem the world is facing. The streets were full of Eritreans, other Africans and Bangladeshi, and The International New York times informed us that over 50,000 Africans have arrived in Italy up to the end of July, more than the entire previous year, 2013.

This chap turned out to be an Israeli, busking at the site build by two emperors who
annihilated his people, scattered the rest and forced them to wander the earth for 2000 years - they found their way back, and he found his way here.

Well, they didn't quite finish the Jews in 70AD, because Hadrian had to come back and finish the job, in 130AD, when Judea rose again. This is Hadrian's Tomb but even he wasn't left in peace and it was claimed by Christians and now it's a museum. Every day thousands of curious and ignorant tourists clamber over his remains.

Friday, August 29, 2014


(This first bit appeared in the Albany Advertiser14/8/2014)

Like many when away from home I explore, mostly on foot, and reflect on the place I left behind.

On my most recent trip, to research a book and attend a conference, I landed in Barcelona for the first time since 1974.

Way back then I was a raw and idealistic young man, Generalissimo Franco was in charge and the streets were full of his hated henchmen carrying sub-machine guns.

With Spain now a confirmed democracy, I saw it all with new and often dazzled eyes.

So what is it about Barcelona that could be of any interest to us in the great southern and, in particular, Albany? Well, they know how to wait on table, to serve with efficiency and panache and they know how to celebrate great art and architecture.

We are not blessed with a Gaudi, perhaps the 20th Century's most unbelievable architect, but we do have fine architects and maybe it is time to celebrate them and find a way to let the rest of the country know about them. They are mentioned, of course, in the annual building awards, but I'm talking about art, not drafting.

This capital of Catalonia also knows how to use space and as I walked the beach-side promenade I imagined exercise bays on the grassy verge at Middleton and the long stretch between the Boatshed and the Albany Entertainment Centre and more opportunities for activities when the city is full, perhaps popup entertainment and street theatre.

Barcelona streets, alleys and all major thoroughfares are designed for people. Every buildings cluster has it's piazza where residents gather to drink coffee, chat, walk the dog or sit and watch others.

Traffic runs down either side of long promenades, full of people selling, buying, walking and gazing at the passing parade.

In it's centre Barcelona has La Ramblas, running all the way down to the Mediterranean, dotted with all manner of sights and sounds. We could have the Wellington Walk, all the way from the top of York Street to the Boatshed, dotted with whatever people think is interesting and unique about us.

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My first time in Barcelona

In 1974 I took a train from Paris to Madrid, then all the way across Spain to Barcelona, with my first wife, an Israeli, she of the hard face and fiery temperament.

Our stay in Barcelona was blighted by her insistence on taking ill and moping about as though she might collapse in a heap and embarrass her dysfunctional and newly won husband.

Back then the city was in the grip of the Falangists, Franco's men with funny hats and sub machine guns, ready to shoot communists on sight and storm into late night bars and order drinks on El Presidente’s orders. We were nervous, she a hardened communist from a kibbutz and me an ardent convert.

Franco didn't last much longer and neither did the marriage.

Not long after we left Spain we arrived in Bridgetown (WA), she for the first time and me after a long time. We picked apples and she called my people names. One weekend we drove to Albany, a place she fell in love with as she fell out of love with me.

This time
(With a new placement of tongue)

Before we left for the new Barcelona, everyone we spoke to who had visited Barcelona over the last ten years warned us about the pickpockets.  When we arrived the hotel staff warned about the pickpockets, so many people warned us about the pickpockets we half expected someone on the street to stop us, warn us about the pickpockets while at the same time running his hands inside our clothing.

Picking pockets is clearly a growth industry along the Mediterranean and I think now is the time for Albany to jump in and command the southern hemisphere trade.

I mean, let's face it, West Australian pockets are ripe and bulging and if there's a town ideal for picking, it's Albany.

Over the next two years this place will be crammed tight with tourists and so we should begin now training the young, ready and willing to dig deep in other people's pockets.

Let me make it clear that I would be more than happy to return to Barcelona on behalf of the city to recruit Spain's best Fagan, bring her home, and help set up our own Great Southern International School of Pocket Pickers.

Then we need a major marketing campaign to point out that Australians no longer need to travel so far to experience this exciting phenomenon: a quick trip south and they can leave with empty lockets in well under half the travel time.


Barcelona is best known for it's artists and it's opposition to Franco. Franco is dead, but the art lives on. You go to Barcelona you have to see Picasso, Gaudi and Dali.

And here's what we can do.

We have no Franco although we do have a Colin and some call him Emperor, but he is not an itch on Franco. We do however have art, much of it fine and excellent. And we have a good start with the much sought after Albany Art prize and the Great Southern Arts trail.

The lesson of Gaudi, Picasso and Dali is that we need to make something of our artists, celebrate them to draw attention to the rich artistic vein that runs through the region. Three will attract many to view a lot.

And architecture. What about a building, doesn't have to big, or even grand, just something obvious, but designed and built by one of our own. We have a number of fine young practitioners in town. What about a competition to design a structure that symbolises our spirit. 

The revolutionary spirit, alive and well in Barcelona.

So many people sitting, or working out, so few swimming.

The view across the road to La Rambla, from Cafe Zurich. Here, the waiters don't come out empty handed, they don't return empty handed, and when you order, three minutes max, coffee. It was good coffee too, but not all fast deliveries delivered as good a product.
Sagrada Familia, they started in 1927, still building. Wherever I went, Albany always on my mind.

Inside a Gaudi house. Looks cluttered, complicated, yet it is stunningly simple and practical.