Australian sunset series-1

August 19, 2018

Australian sunsets in winter – especially dry and windy winter days – can be stunning. Here’s a selection.

Photography with the iPhone 6

September 23, 2016

Apple is making a big deal about how well their iPhone 6 can take photographs.  The latest I have seen is in the photograph below, which I took in Sydney’s Town Hall railway station … yes, appropriately with the iPhone 6.


Hawkesbury River

June 2, 2016

Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney on 31 May 2016:

Hawkesbury River

Western Sydney train travel: A tribute to John Dengate

June 19, 2015

Earlier this week I received one of the best CD double albums in a long time: John Dengate’s Australian Son, which is now distributed by Shoestring Records in the Blue Mountains (and run by folksinger Pat Drummond). Dengate “was the closest heir to the legacy of Henry Lawson that this country has known”, writes Warren Fahey, in the Dengate obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald obituary on August 19, 2013.

Many of Dengate’s songs “have already passed into that hazy territory where the song is known and the songwriter anonymous”, Fahey writes.

“Train Trip to Guildford” (1975) is one of them. This song was also my ode for a two and a half year period in the 1980s that I spent travelling by train all over Western Sydney.

From the opening stanza:

Waiting, waiting for the twenty past four to arrive;
Mate, the twenty past four doesn’t run any more,
The next train’s the quarter past five.


But it’s Wentworthville, Pendle Hill;
We’re rattling towards Emu Plains.
I should have got out when I heard someone shout
At Granville, “You have to change trains.”

This was my song.

Sydney (Carlingford) born, Dengate captured this time and place – those interminable Western Sydney train journeys – during the age of the unheated “red rattlers” and prior to the construction of the “Y link” that connected Harris Park and Parramatta, the southern line to the Western line without having to change trains. I worked in Blacktown then, for the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), and I didn’t own a car. What was I thinking?

So I listen now – some 30 years later – to Dengate’s voice and his songs, yet again (my cassette tape of his songs long unusable). It was another time and another place, but that Australia of the 1970s and 1980s that Dengate writes and sings about makes us who we are now. Worth listening for anyone who has a sense of social history, or wants to understand.

Below, the Australian Son album cover:

John Dengate Australian Son album cover


Bookstores now and then

June 17, 2015

For those of us who love physical bookshops, the last ten years have been a time of almost continual loss. This thought struck me as I read Adam Gopnik’s touching New Yorker tribute to the now-departed La Hune bookstore in Paris (“When a bookstore closes, an argument ends”, June 12, 2015).

Gopnik notes that the “forces that brought La Hune down are, sadly and predictably, the same forces that destroyed” other bookstores, “the ruthless depredations of the Internet … alongside the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury.” And yes, a Dior now stands where La Hune once stood.

Gopnik describes his reaction to the bookstore’s closing as:

Something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.

It is a deep sadness that I have shared too frequently.  To this day whenever I enter a bookshop – especially if it is filled with quality selections carefully displayed – I am filled with, while not quite pure joy, something much more than simple happiness.  Thus the loss of a favoured bookshop can be profound.

My first bookshop – the long-departed “Titles Unlimited”, located at 409 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, New Jersey (near the Fourth Avenue intersection), opened in 1966 – a great year for me, as my book-buying habits were just starting. It was the first of a chain of six under that same name in New Jersey; the original Titles Unlimited had started in New York City’s Union Square in 1961 by the founders, the Keusches, who sold out in 1988.

I recall reading almost the whole of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while standing in its aisles, and it became my favourite stopping-off place on my walk back from high school to home.

I have loved and lost many bookstores since then. I particularly mourn the passing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California. Shockingly, it had just closed when I visited Berkeley in October 2008 on my way back to Australia. Over the course of two days in Berkeley, I looked in vain for a quality bookshop. How could it be? How could one of the great universities of the world (where I had studied for two years) not have a good bookstore?

It has not been my only loss. My first visit to a Borders bookstore was in East Brunswick, New Jersey with my mother (who knew that I would like it), on one of my visits back to the USA. Thrillingly, Borders then came to Australia, building their large stores seemingly everywhere: I frequented Borders here in Sydney at the Pitt Street Mall store in downtown, the Hornsby Westfield shopping centre, the Chatswood Westfield shopping centre and the Macquarie shopping centre. The particular wonder of Borders was that it actually smelled like an American bookstore, possibly because they brought in so many US-published books (or perhaps they bottled it?). I didn’t think it would last: Borders had over-built, at least here in Australia, and had a haphazard stocking policy, with loads of books that I suspected that few people would purchase. They closed in Australia in July 2011, and two months later in the USA.

I didn’t mourn Borders in the same way, but I still miss it, particularly how it allowed me to pursue my two loves – books and movies – in the same shopping centre.

I have worked in two bookshops. For six months in the 1970s I worked in the B. Dalton on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, primarily in the receiving/shipping room. It was a generalist shop, with a staff of no-one over 24 except for the manager. Our biggest claim to fame was that John Updike, who lived not far away on Beacon Hill, occasionally came in to purchase mostly remainders. At its peak, the B. Dalton was the second largest chain in the USA, however almost all stores had closed by early 2010.

I later managed a bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, not long after my arrival – one that had been a famous “Becks” bookshop prior to falling on hard times. It also disappeared, and last I checked was a women’s clothing shop.

Despite the ongoing loss of bookshops, I still feel blessed, living here in Sydney. My favourite bookstore is “Books Kinokuniya”, the only Australian outpost of a small Japanese chain, one that bills itself as the largest bookstore in Australia. It has quality, quantity, a great location (right near Town Hall in downtown Sydney), a professional staff and moderate discounting. Not the best website, but a fabulous selection, including academic-style books. My close to “equal favourite” is Abbeys Books, located on York Street, not far away. By comparison with the mega-stores, it’s small, but maintains consistent quality, and an almost uncanny ability to have in stock what I am seeking. Good staff, easy ordering, a passable website and a real commitment to quality.

But these are not the only Sydney bookstores worth seeking out. Downtown also houses the venerable Dymocks main store on George Street, which has operated continuously in this location for a long time and has an excellent selection. It’s not nearly as intellectual or literary as Kinokuniya or Abbeys, but has a strong kids section (including good games) and – a guilty pleasure – a fabulous connected high-quality stationery store with unique items unavailable anywhere else. Also on my list are Gleebooks in Glebe – intellectual, quirky and endlessly stimulating; and Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, a place that I have only begun to discover and that reflects its hip, intellectual clientele.

Further afield, Sydney’s north shore, where I live, may not be a cultural mecca like south of the Harbour, but includes a number of places that have filled me with joy over the years: Constant Reader in Crows Nest, the Lindfield Bookshop (with its responsive ordering service) and The Book Review in St Ives. Also worthy of note – out of my weekly path, but enriching my book experience – are Gertrude and Alice in Bondi Beach, Ariel Books in Paddington and Berkelouw Books, which has expanded from its historic Southern Highlands used bookstore to Paddington and now to a number of other small suburban shops, filling in the gaps left by other closures.

And then there’s Amazon, worthy of an extended meditation in its own right. It has the best website bar none, although the recent decline in the Australian dollar and Amazon’s high shipping costs to Australia have reduced its competitiveness significantly. Oh yes, did I forget to mention? – Last I heard Amazon was still the biggest bookseller to Australians. The Book Depository is cheaper for us, but its website far inferior. Gopnik has a cute observation about Amazon:

Anyway (the more impatient counter argument goes on), a bookstore is only a platform for the purchase of literature, and platforms move and change with every new age, gathering and then shedding the moss of our memories as they roll on. Someday, someone will be writing a nostalgic account of one-click shopping on Amazon.


April 6, 2014

Western Sydney is still one of Australia’s great challenges

Yesterday’s edition (5-6 April 2014) of The Sydney Morning Herald has brought a new series of articles about the challenges and difficulties facing residents of Western Sydney. Every few years, the Herald rediscovers Western Sydney (note: the majority of its readers live in the Eastern Suburbs or on the North Shore). Once upon a time, when I worked for the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), the Herald had a Blacktown-based journalist (Richard Macy), although I am not certain if they do now.

In a detailed article by Matt Wade entitled “The daily exodus”, the following facts about “the West” stand out:

– Sydney is the seventh most congested city internationally.
– Long commutes are so bad that Charles Montgomery, in his book Happy City, estimates that “for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work ‘has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love’”. He also quotes “a Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce.” (My comment: commuting from many outer Sydney suburbs to the CBD can easily take 90 minutes one direction, and are especially bad if you have to change “modes” – from bus to train.)
– Rich people live in Western Sydney too. “The Ponds, near Kellyville, was rated the city’s most advantaged suburb” on an Australian Bureau of Statistics index.
– Parramatta ranked the 11th top performing economic area of Australia in 2012-13, with a growth rate of 1.6% that outstripped Sydney’s CBD.
– Olympic Park (Homebush Bay) is also in the top 20 economic districts of Australia.
– Western Sydney has very limited success in attracting key finance, service and IT jobs: only 17 percent of them are in the region.

The economic health of Western Sydney is one of Australia’s greatest challenges. Despite decades of discussion and investigation about a second airport for Sydney, it still has not been announced. I understand that this may happen “soon” for Badgerys Creek. Despite some local opposition to that, I think it is the single most important thing that can happen for the region.

Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival 2013

June 5, 2013

(This article appears in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 30 May 2013.)

Even in these days of hyper availability of movies via digital television, FoxTel, DVD, Blu-Ray and digital downloads, film festivals continue to play a crucial role in showcasing small, niche and specialist films to a wider audience.  As the second oldest Australian film festival (Melbourne beats it) and operating continuously for 60 years, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) still takes a commanding role in setting the parameters of Australian screen culture and film consumption.

Each year the SFF reflects the Jewish experience in many odd, unusual and unexpected ways.  Unlike the annual Australian Jewish Film Festival (and the newer Israeli Film Festival), the SFF does not have a “Jewish” or “Israeli” quota.  So the Jewish experiences we see reflected on screen are there because they have “floated to the top” of the world’s festival and art film circuit.  So what does this year’s SFF tell us about the Jewish experience?

First off, Israeli films continue to fascinate and engage the world in ways certainly unheard (or un-dreamt) of until recently.  Yes, Israel is frequently in the news, and the modern state of Israel is a rich source of drama (literally), but only lately has this been reflected in high quality cinematic products.  In “The Attack”, an Arab doctor living comfortably in Tel Aviv has his life turned upside down when his wife becomes a suicide bomber.  And in the documentary “Dancing in Jaffa”, a French-Palestinian dancer returns to Jaffa and tries to get Arab and Jewish kids to dance together, a new take on the never-ending attempts to cross the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.

This year the festival also features two oddly autobiographic and charming films from young actresses:  Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig.  In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and latterly director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects:  dementia (“Away From Her”) and adultery in “Take This Waltz”, which starred Seth Rogen along with a number of other Jewish actors in Jewish character roles.  In “Stories We Tell”, she breaks new ground in the documentary format, with an adventurous, challenging and thought-provoking investigation into her own personal history.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother Diane had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  “Stories We Tell” investigates this unravelling of family secrets, using home movies, interviews and re-created scenes from her childhood.  Critic Anthony Lane (“The New Yorker”) calls the film, “a startling mixture of private memoir, public inquiry, and conjuring trick” that leaves the viewer feeling destabilised.  Critic Kenneth Turan (“Los Angeles Times”) describes the experience as “life-changing for the audience”.  Stories of “found” Jewish identity are many, but “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable ones you will see on film.

Actress Greta Gerwig is not Jewish, but the film in which she stars and co-wrote – “Frances Ha” – may very well set the tone for Woody Allen wanna-bes in the next decade.  “Time” magazine calls it “A Millennial ‘Annie Hall'”, but perhaps you should think of it more like “Annie Hall” crossed with “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here in a Jewish character role), splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  The “Greenberg” analogy is apt, because Gerwig’s collaborator (and the film’s director) is Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Woody Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  (Like Allen, Baumbach grew up in Brooklyn attended Allen’s former high school – Midwood.)  This delightful comedy follows Gerwig’s character from hilarious disaster to disaster.  And the autobiography?:  Gerwig’s parents play themselves as her parents, a great personal treat for me, as her father was a friend of mine back in our university days.  Recommended unreservedly.

The Festival also features a number of films made by Jewish directors.  My favourite of these is “Lovelace”, a drama about the life of infamous porn star Linda Lovelace (“Deep Throat”) made by my second cousin Rob Epstein and his partner Jeffrey Friedman, Jewish film-makers from San Francisco whose work has frequently featured at the SFF (most recently “Howl”).  A different film comes from first-time Jewish director Stuart Blumberg:  his sex addiction support group comedy “Thanks for Sharing” stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins.

Fans of Polish-Jewish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) may wish to catch her lengthy television series, “Burning Bush”, examining Czech history from the historic changes in 1969.  Jewish installation artist Jem Cohen has made “Museum Hours”, a drama set in Vienna that one American critic calls “the best drama ever made about museums and the connection between visual art and everyday life”.  I am somewhat less enthusiastic:  the film is slow, physically bleak (Central Europe in winter does not excite) but artistically ambitious – in many ways a true “art” film that the Festival audience may very well love.

Sydney Film Fest banner and State Theatre