A place where I'm at home spiritually

Yesterday I received an email from a New Zealand friend who mentioned that he was in his 'spiritual home of Spain'. He didn't need to elaborate because I knew exactly what he meant.

Less than two weeks ago, I experienced something of this when I arrived in Bilbao on a late night flight from England. Spain is not my one and only spiritual home, as my friend had implied was the case for him. But I had the strong sense that my spirit had come to a congenial place from one that was less congenial.

Bilbao-Abando Railway Station

I breezed through immigration just in time to make it to the bus stop at midnight to catch the last bus into Plaza Moyúa for the 20 minute walk along Gran Vía to my small pension on the other side of the Nervión River.

Locals were still out enjoying the evening and they helped me with directions. My genial host had cheerfully stayed up to welcome me. Everything was right with the world.

It was not just that I had reached my destination without encountering obstacles. I felt that I was at one with this place and its people, even though it was a big city I'd never been to before. I knew no one but I knew everyone. I was at home spiritually.

Anselmo Guinea Vuelta de la romera 1899

I was reminded of my strangely euphoric arrival ten years ago in the southern port city of Algeciras, after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry from Tangier in Morocco. Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries I've visited. But I did not feel that I belonged, even as a tourist.

The people were not friendly and it seemed they were only interested in my tourist dollar. At restaurants they only wanted to serve you their tourist menu, which was different to what they ate themselves.

Marrakech street scene

But most of all I found it alienating that everybody - men and women - was dressed in loose fitting gowns that prevented me from seeing their skin and the contours of their bodies. It should be obvious, but I'd never before considered that the way people cover their bodies plays a major part in the degree of our connection with them.

I told myself that this was a Muslim country and that's the way Muslims dress. But I found it very uplifting when I arrived in Algeciras and was able to enjoy the sight of skin and body countours, along with the warmth of people who were welcoming and spirited and knew how to smile and look me in the eye.

Margaret Court's narrow focus then and now

I remember growing up in Margaret Court's home town of Albury-Wodonga at the height of her success in the 1960s and 1970s. We'd drive past the lawn tennis courts where she'd honed her skills.

Her family lived opposite and she would crawl through a hole in the fence to practise, in her determination to succeed and be the best. She reminisces about growing up a tomboy in a neighbourhood full of sports mad boys with whom she would compete.

Margaret Court

My father would cite her example of working hard to achieve a goal. He even paid for me to take tennis lessons from her coach Wally Rutter.

Dedication to a specialised task inevitably involves a narrow focus. This does not have to be a bad thing. But if I had to sum up what I think of Margaret Court today, I would say that she is in a very narrow place, hopelessly deluded in a way that causes harm to young people.

She's a fundamentalist who focuses on a literal and narrow reading of the Bible. She says marriage is 'a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible'. But the Bible also sanctions practices she would disapprove of, such as polygamy and the use of slaves as sexual concubines.

Margaret Court in 1964

I was interested to read the conciliatory remarks of Court's nephew Phil Shanahan, who runs the Margaret Court Tennis Academy in Wodonga. He's suffered abusive 'bashing' on his door during the middle of the night, and there have been vitriolic attacks on the Academy's website and social media pages.

He distances himself from his aunt's remarks. He advocates a marriage equality conscience vote in parliament and affirms those involved in the academy who identify as gay. But he insists that she is entitled to express her opinion.

'Marg says that's what the Bible says and she's a pastor, she believes that and is committed to that'.

Margaret Court and Phil Shanahan - centre - at Margaret Court Tennis Academy

However insisting on her right to say what she thinks is in itself damaging to the self esteem of young people working out their sexuality. Why can't he just say that he loves his aunt but she should not express these opinions because they destroy young people's self esteem and cause them to self-harm?

After previous homophobic remarks made by Court in 2012, comedian Magda Szubanski spoke of having suicidal thoughts while struggling with her homosexuality as a teenager.

It seems that Court's Victory Life Church could be well on the way to becoming a local version of the proactively homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the US. These churches actually advocate violence. Last week in North Carolina, a woman was found guilty of leading 30 parishioners to attack and beat a gay member of the church in order to 'expel his demons'.


Links: tomboy fundamentalism nephew wrong Magda demons

My favourite tourist attraction anywhere

I'm in Barcelona at the tail end of my five week trip. I spent most of it staying in the one location, with my sister in Kent, England. But I've been on the move for the past six days in the north of Spain, visiting Bilbao, Logroño, Vitoria and Barcelona.

When I'm moving, I tend not to have the time and presence of mind to write these reflections, so I'm pleased that I woke up at 4:00 this morning unable to sleep with time to fill in.

Being in Barcelona briefly reminds me of my first trip to Europe in 1993 when I visited five countries in five days (Frankfurt in Germany, Turin in Italy, Strasbourg in France, and then Barcelona and London). I was trying to visit as many countries as possible in the short time I had off work.

Torre Glries

In 1993 I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which is possibly my favourite tourist attraction anywhere. I think it is a rare triumph of human art and endeavour and religious faith that both believers and non-believers alike find totally arresting.

I visited it again in 1997 and 2015 and I plan to go there today, especially as it's nearby. Interestingly the view of La Sagrada Familia from the window of my airbnb apartment is obscured by another beautiful building, the Torre Glòries (above). Unlike La Sagrada Familia, it is arguably not intended to give glory to God. In fact its French architect Jean Nouvel spoke of what he called its 'phallic character'.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The other cities I visited in Spain were all new to me. There was Bilbao, which I bypassed on my tour through northern Spain in 1996 because my guide book discounted it as a dull and declining industrial city. The city's transition to a major centre of art and culture did not begin until the renowned Guggenheim Bilbao building opened a year later. Indeed it also jump started the city economically, adding over three billion euros to Bilbao's economy since it opened. It was labelled the 'Bilbao effect'.

For me, the building upstaged the art. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a spectacle but I found Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts a much more satisfying experience of individual art works. A few days later, I was surprised to see another Gehry creation in a hotel building at the Marqués de Riscal winery I visited near Logroño. No doubt hoping for the 'Bilbao effect'.

Marqus de Riscal winery hotel

I'd never heard of Logroño before and my purpose was to see a friend who lives in a village outside the city. It's the provincial capital of the wine growing province of La Rioja and is located just outside the Basque country. In some ways it was reminiscent of Nîmes in the Languedoc wine region in the south of France, near to the village I stayed in a couple of weeks ago.

My other destination in Spain was Vitoria (Gastiez in Basque). It is the capital of the Basque region where my niece is spending much of this year working as an au pair and learning Spanish. I was warned not to expect much in the way of spectacle, but I appreciated its fine gardens and public spaces and buildings. In the way that I always enjoy a visit to Canberra.

Town Square Vitoria

It seems a long time since I left England six days ago. My departure from there was memorable in that I took the opportunity to visit the Sidney Nolan exhibition in Chichester, as a detour on my way to Gatwick Airport.

The exhibition - and another that I saw in Australia House London at the beginning of May - were staged to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the artist the London Telegraph describes as both 'the Aussie modernist par excellence' and 'a central figure in British art' especially during the 1950s and 1960s.

Sidney Nolan Central Australia 1949 Ripolin on glass

He settled in the UK in 1953 and died there in 1992 as part of the Australia's cultural brain drain that saw some of the country's best and brightest move to the UK but retain their Australian identity as part of their personal brand.


Links: Glòries Fine Arts Marqués Nolan

Queer Art at Tate Britain

The exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 has recently opened at Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery in London that was renamed to distinguish it from the separate Tate Modern.

I went there on Friday with mixed feelings, sensing that it could be more of an ordeal than a pleasure to see a show designed to highlight acting on same sex attraction when it was a criminal and social taboo.

Sure enough, I was pleased to get out of there when I'd given it the once over.

I saw too much that was either troubling or confusing. There was photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden's turn of the 19th century portraits of naked Sicilian 10-20 year old boys posing as classical athletes. I wasn't sure how this was different from the kind of child pornography that exploits and damages minors and is now a serious offence to possess.

Wilhelm von Gloeden 1856-1931 Head of a Sicilian Boy

The exhibit's descriptive label refers to a writer who had a packet of van Gloeden's images and 'peeped at it again and again', but then provides context.

'To our eyes, there is a troubling power dynamic between the wealthy von Gloeden and the impoverished Sicilian community, and the uncertain age of some of his models gives an uncomfortable undercurrent to his work'.

If that was a bit edgy for me, the exhibition did include quite a few insights into aspects of social history that were new to me.

There was a painting of social reformer Henry Havelock Ellis, who spent his early adult years in Australia before returning to England to study to become a physician. He was also a writer and his most famous book Sexual Inversion (1897) was an objective study of homosexuality that did not present it as a disease, immoral, or a crime.

Henry Bishop 1868-1939 Henry Havelock Ellis

Currently Tate Britain also has a major David Hockney exhibition. I chose Queer Art because I'd seen the National Gallery of Victoria's Hockney show in Melbourne last November. But it occurred to me that a visit to the Tate's Hockney instead would have given me a much more grounded and celebratory experience of queer British art that was at the same time not lacking in edge.

Van Gogh Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear

A suprise later in the day was The Courtauld Gallery near Australia House in the Strand. I'd never heard of it before, but my sister had recommended it.

The Courtauld has a large collection on four levels, ranging from Medieval and Renaissance to 20th Century Modernist. These included many classics such as Van Gogh's 1889 Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear. A painting with huge appeal to the mainstream that would have once been regarded as quite challenging.


Links: Queer von Gloeden Ellis Courtauld

Rudyard Kipling and the crimes of Britain's inglorious empire

Yesterday I drove with my sister to the southern Kent coastal city of Folkstone, where she had a work commitment. I remember Folkstone as the entry point on my first visit to England in 1993 after taking the ferry from France.

With ferry traffic having quickly declined after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, Folkstone ceased to be a significant port. The locals have been trying to regenerate the city as an arts hub, but it was Sunday morning and there was little going on as I walked through its slowly expanding Creative Quarter.

Folkstones Creative Quarter

We drove west along the coast through Romney Marsh, a sparsely populated wetland area which was formerly known as a smuggler's paradise. This took us into East Sussex and the historic towns of Rye and Winchelsea, being directed by our GPS along quite a number of narrow country roads framed by beautiful thick canopies of green vegetation.

The most memorable of these, at least for its name, was Dumb Woman's Lane. I looked it up afterwards and - as expected - the naming has nothing to do with diminishing women. The legendary dumb woman was in fact mute, with the possibility that her tongue was cut out by smugglers she witnessed in order to prevent her from reporting their actions.

Dumb Womans Lane

Our next destination was the small village of Burwash, which I knew was close to the former family home of a friend from Sydney. A further two miles down the road was Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's home from 1902 until his death in 1936. It is now a National Trust property and we enjoyed the rest of the surprisingly sunny afternoon looking at the house and its interiors and walking in the large garden.

My friend told me that his family's home - an iron master's residence - was built with stone from the same quarry as Kipling's. Knowing him, I don't think he meant that as a claim to fame. In my eyes, it would be the opposite, for Kipling is one of those figures that I love to dislike.

20170521_152242_HDR

I find it easy enough to be seduced by his genius for phrase making. But I'm much more mindful of his role as a triumphant champion of British colonialism, particularly in his birthplace India.

Earlier this year I'd been shocked when I listened to an interview that touched on some of the details of how the Britain trashed India's economy and cruelly exploited its people for its own economic and political advantage. It was with the Indian writer and politican Shashi Tharoor, who was promoting his new book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

Kiplings writing desk

Elsewhere Tharoor summarises his opinion of Kipling: 'Fine words strung together in praise of the morally indefensible'. This is a variation on George Orwell's criticism - 'He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks' - which we see echoed in today's politics.


Links: Creative Dumb Batemans Inglorious Tharoor Orwell

Fortifications in wine and cheese heaven in the south of France

On Monday my sister and I took the train from Kent to Nîmes in the south of France to stay with a friend and former work colleague, in his home in a village about 15 minutes drive from the relatively small provincial capital with around 146,000 inhabitants.

Nimes canal

It's nearly three decades since we worked together and seven or eight years since he moved here to his wife's native region after their marriage seven or eight years ago. Life is good when you're in wine and cheese heaven and we've felt especially privileged that they've shared theirs with us.

Aside from the heavy duty hospitality, we've had the unseasonal warmth and sun of a successive pre-summer 29 degree days. Weather is like a game of chance but if it's good it always puts a stamp of satisfaction on a travel experience.

Village rooftops

We've acquired a good sense of family life and village life. It's a sleepy but vibrant village with a population of around 600 in a setting that is dominated by small vineyards. Every village has a wine co-op which has usually been set up more than a century ago to make and distribute wine.

The economics of winemaking has changed a lot and these days some co-ops are viable and some are not. On our first day we took a ten litre plastic container to a local co-op and paid 14 euros for the attendant to fill it with what seemed a very good rosé.

There are no shops in the village but regular visits from various small business people such as the butcher and the baker. On our first morning we met the Lyne the baker.

Lyne the baker

There's always politics to be talked about, and I was interested to hear that the elections to the village council had been quite hotly contested with some unexpected candidates putting their hats into the ring and doing well.

But not surprisingly, most of the talk was about the recent national elections and the success of the new president Emmanuel Macron. When we had guests, I was not anticipating a variety of opinions.

I'd assumed there would be overwhelming relief that France had rejected Marine Le Pen and dodged the chaos and bad energy of a government playing to fear with promises to fortify borders. But there was also cynicism about Macron's winning the day with his consummate ability as a political chess player.

Pont du Gard

Yesterday we enjoyed a leisurely walk around the UNESCO World Heritage listed Pont du Gard ancient 50 kilometre Roman aqueduct. We were lucky to have the peak tourist season weather without the peak tourist season numbers.

The same was true on Tuesday when we walked around Nîmes, which was the destination for the water flowing through the first century aqueduct.

Nîmes has a lot of constructions surviving from Roman and later times. Many of them are fortifications, some built or adapted by Napoleon.

University of Nmes constructed in an old fort built by Vauban - Louis XIVs military architect - in 17th century

I was struck by the need to fortify cities and villages to protect their populations from outside threats, from ancient times until the present, with the current day prevalence of terrorism.

Our friend took us to the gate of a campus of the University of Nîmes. It is located in an old fort built in the 17th century by Louis XIV's military architect Vauban, who is best known for his advice on how to consolidate France's borders to make them more defensible.

In what is quite a recently imposed restriction, we were not allowed inside the university compound. At the gate there is now a presence of officers in military uniform using Vauban's fortifications to protect students from the present day terrorist threat.

Random selection and the good food travel experience

Food is one of the highlights of travel for many people including myself. Some travellers meticulously research and plan where they will dine. Others simply choose where to eat at random according to what is available at the location they're in when they feel hungry.

Nearly always I'm in the latter 'hit or miss' category. Some might consider this lazy. But I'm pleased to say that in my experience, eating randomly usually makes for a more satisfying experience than faithfully submitting to the recommendation of a guide book.

Shellfish stall Brighton beachfront

Frequently those who plan will discover that the restaurant they've spent an hour or more trying to locate is simply not what they'd hoped for. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. In other words, it's every bit as hit or miss as my random selection approach.

These travellers are trying to replicate the experience of somebody else. That could be the author of the guide book or travel article, or perhaps another traveller who had a very satisfying meal at the particular restaurant at some other time. Travel is about your own experience of the moment.

For example, I was walking along the Brighton beachfront yesterday and came upon a shellfish stall selling cockles, whelks, mussels, prawns and jellied eels. I always love eel but have mostly had it smoked. The 'jellied' aspect seemed like a leap into the unknown. But I took the plunge and found that the jelly was every bit as flavoursome and satisfying as the eel itself.

Jellied eel Brighton beachfront

However I don't always stick to my principle. A few minutes earlier I missed an opportunity to experience fish and chips with 'mushy peas'. I'd never heard of mushy peas and assumed that it was just another of the trashy British comfort foods that I sneer at and condescendingly dismiss.

That is because I pay more attention to received wisdom of what good food is rather than my own curiosity,  judgment and pleasure on the spot. This morning I did some reading and learned that mushy peas is quite a thing in British regional cuisine.

Fish Chips with Mushy Peas hoarding Brighton

For Wednesday evening in Brighton, I'd received a restaurant recommendation but decided to take my chances and select something at random. I discovered another traditional dish that I'd never heard of and probably wouldn't have sought out.

Gammon steak. It was served with pineapple and we'd probably just call it ham steak. But it is not simply a thick slice cut from a whole or half ham, which I understand is how ham steaks are produced in the US and Australia. It is cured like bacon and has to be cooked.

I saw 'gammon steak' on the menu. I didn't know what it was but I ordered it anyway, trusting in fate and hoping for the best. That is the way to experience the best as a traveller.


Links: shellfish mushy gammon

Body art in Brighton

I'm spending just over a day in Brighton. Last May I spent two days here. It's the month of the Brighton Fringe and the Brighton Festival.

I first came here last May when I was alerted to the festivals by my niece's one hour performance piece 'The Daddy Blues', which was about growing up with a difficult father.

The timing didn't work out for me to see that, but I came here and enjoyed other performances and events. So a return May visit to Brighton was always on my agenda.

Charly NDoumbe Heroes Exhibition Brighton Fringe 2017

Yesterday's surprise was a nice sunny day. I also enjoyed the contrast in culture and outlook from my rural Kentish base of Faversham, which in itself is a beautiful town. Faversham voted decisively for Brexit, while Brighton was overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.

Brighton has a lot in common with Newtown in Sydney, so in some sense it's like returning home. It was a pleasure to walk the streets and investigate what I might sample from the hundreds of festival offerings available, including cabaret, circus, comedy, dance, spoken word, music, theatre and visual arts.

What I ended up experiencing was really quite random. Two blocks from my guest house, I came upon an exhibition of body art by young French artist Charly N'Doumbe. It was not tattoos, but photographs of coloured light creations projected on male and female nude bodies and printed on aluminium. They looked like whole body tattoos.

Cathie Pilkington doll sculpture The Life Rooms University of Brighton Brighton Festival 2017

Next I walked up Grand Parade to the University of Brighton, where last year I'd seen a book art exhibition. This year it was doll sculptures, some of which were presented as if they were participating in a life drawing class.

Last Saturday the artist Cathie Pilkington held a 'Corpse workshop', so I guess you could call it corpse art. There was quite a variety of exhibits and forms, and they seemed to be peaceful rather than macabre. There was even a work of taxidermy, a stuffed dog restfully lying on a mat.

Finally, in the evening I attended an improvised electronic jazz music and contemporary dance performance titled Ahtuf Kontrol. It was members of a local family, including father on the keyboard accompanying his dance school graduate son, along with fellow musicians with electric guitar and trumpet.

Ahtuf Kontrol Family Turner-Lee improvised music and contemporary dance Brighton Fringe 2017

The experience reminded me quite strongly of the Interplay workshops I've done several times a year in the Newtown parish church in Sydney with the parish priest Peter Maher. It's about acting out feelings and stories in body movement, often to music.

The Interplay reminder had me wanting to rise from my chair and move my body according to how I felt about the performance. But it was still England, and all members of the audience were politely restrained in their seats for the duration. In control of their emotions, even though they were viewing a performance titled 'Ahtuf Kontrol'.


Links: Daddy dolls Heroes Ahtuf Interplay

An emotional visit to the British Museum

Yesterday I visited the British Museum for the first time. I was aware that it is one of the largest museums in the world - with some eight million artefacts - and that I could only sample a handful of the exhibits in the two hours I had to give to it.

The British Museum

But much more than that, it is also one of the most controversial. Many items in the collection - perhaps most of it - are ill gotten in circumstances of exploitation such as colonial plunder.

It's well known that there is a long list of disputed items in the possession of the British Museum, including the Elgin Marbles. Greece's claim for restitution is backed by UNESCO and other organisations.

There's the Rosetta Stone - the pride of the collection - which is claimed by Egypt. There are also Australian Aboriginal remains, some of which were returned to traditional owners a few years ago.

The Rosetta Stone

For me, there's no question that we are talking about thousands of incidences of theft that the British authorities are justifying or concealing through their posturing and intellectual arrogance and bullying.

However my feelings about this are mixed and contradictory and no doubt confused. And they are feelings. I am conscious that the preservation of cultural heritage is an emotional issue for me. I am upset and find myself wanting to switch off when I hear news of the destruction of cultural heritage by groups such as Islamic State.

In this respect, I would like to see many threatened artifacts extracted from their locations and bundled up and sent to the British Museum and similar institutions for safe keeping until the current wave of cultural barbarism passes.

But of course that is a ridiculous proposition. Cultural barbarism will not pass. It is itself a part of human history that needs to be recognised and validated, no matter how abhorrent it is. Islamic State will deserve a place in history.

Perhaps we just need to take a cold shower and get over it. No. But yesterday I wanted to momentarily put to rest my feelings and convictions about the back story of the British Museum's collection so that I could simply enjoy some of the stories it presents.

Alexander the Great

I did this to some extent, appreciating for example the depiction of Alexander the Great as a master self-publicist. He is said to have carefully controlled the numerous representations of his portrait presented throughout his empire. Certain anointed sculptors had to portray him 'with a youthful, clean shaven face, long hair and a dynamic turn of the head'.

I did enjoy that and a few other exhibits. But I would have felt better about it if there was an overlay in the museum's presentation that included an acknowledgement of plunder and an element of contrition.

Margate and gentrification's fear and self-loathing

I visited the seaside town of Margate for the second time in a week, on this occasion with my sister. From time to time she goes there for work and knows it well.

She told me that central Margate contains areas in which the residents are in the top five per cent of socially deprived populations in the UK. I read that a study by the End Child Poverty charity revealed that 47.5 per cent of under 18s are living in struggling households. Many have a history of abuse and there is a very high rate of offending and reoffending.

The finest sands in England at Margate

Margate is also a beautifully laid out Victorian town with a magnificent beachfront. It is ripe for gentrification, and that is in fact happening quite rapidly. The deprived areas are in the centre, and the houses occupied by the privileged stand side by side with those of the deprived. They are easily identified as the freshly painted ones with plantation shutters and neat front gardens.

My sister said she sees further signs of gentrification every time she visits. Gay couples arrive in a street and set a standard and they are soon followed by the straights. The change has been accelerated by the prominence of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, which was established there in 2011. Indeed that was what attracted me to Margate.

As we walked along one of the streets close to the gallery, we spotted a hand written sign at the front of one house. It was requesting fellow residents not to disturb the children by slamming the door. The sign attracted my sister's attention because earlier in the day she'd been listening to her daughter telling of her struggle with being woken regularly by a 5:00 am door slammer.

Stop slamming the door

My sister photographed the sign, and the resident who'd scribbled it immediately appeared on the door step. She was a struggling single mother whom my sister had anticipated would swear at her for the invasion of privacy.

Instead we heard the resident's story of how the challenge of raising young children in such circumstances was exacerbated by the door slammers' insensitivity. My sister told of her daughter's struggle with the door slammer at 5:00 am. It was an unexpected and moving expression of mutual empathy between privileged and underprivileged.

Later in the day I was listening to a podcast of a recent long read article in The Guardian titled 'Confessions of a reluctant gentrifier'. It was written by a US academic who was suggesting that we build walls of attitude between differently privileged groups of people living in the same neighbourhood.

Turner Contemporary at Margate

This fosters unnecessary caution and irrational fear. She says we're more likely to be hurt by the cars we drive than the people we live among. Further she argues that this fear induces self-loathing.

'We are afraid, my husband suggests, because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve. We know that white people have reaped some ill-gotten gains in this country. And so privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed.'

If my sister's experience is any guide, there are grounds for hope that unexpected encounters with the 'other side' might short circuit our guilt and break down the walls of attitude.