September 21

5 Melbourne rituals (that are a little bit silly)

Rituals begin in the stupidest ways. One visit you might find something cool and then next time accidentally stumble upon it again, only to find that on subsequent visits you look forward to having something familiar in a place where you don’t live. It feels like being a local.

Realising this makes me hate ‘tradition’ as an argument. After all, the thing you now call tradition was once new and treading a well-worn path just closes you to other opportunities. So I lay this bare: I ritually do these five things when I go to Melbourne, but I’m aware that I need to be open to the new as well.

This is a kolace. I can't find the pic I tweeted of it, so here's one I stole from Jejune's Place.
This is a kolace. I can’t find the pic I tweeted of it, so here’s one I stole from Jejune’s Place.

1. Kolace from the Queen Victoria Market

I don’t know the name of the bakery, but enter at the McIver’s teashop doorway and it’s the first bakery in that aisle. Opposite the popular borek place. It sells a range of baked goods, but I only have eyes for something I have never seen anywhere else: a kolace. It looks like a sweet pizza crossed with a delicious archaeological dig, just layers of yum from cherry to custard to poppy seed paste.

Since I usually buy some tea from McIver’s, it’s not too far to go to grab a borek for lunch and a little (big) dessert for afterwards. The last couple of times I’ve bought a kolace, it has been out of habit rather than need. I count my mealtimes in Melbourne like a miser counts his money, not wanting to miss one, but greedy for more even if I’m sated. So I’ve put the kolace in my bag for later, only to pull it out squashed and slightly stale at the airport before I board the flight home. But no other pre-flight snack will do.

2. International Cakes (183 Lonsdale Street)

On one of my first lengthy stays in Melbourne I spent 12 days in the CBD: four in the YHA on Flinders St, four at the Hotel Grand-Chancellor and four at the Vibe Hotel. While at the Grand-Chancellor, I came across this mostly Greek dessert cafe. I was attracted to its extensive range of beautiful looking biscuits, cakes and slices, its very simple decor and the fact it was open late. If I find myself in this corner of the city, I go there for a hot chocolate and something on the side, usually a baklava.

The coffee has never been great; I have a feeling the servers are not trained baristas, and the baklava is probably the worst I’ve ever tasted, soggy after being drenched in syrup with no discernible flavour other than sickly sweet. And yet I will sit and nibble and sip while reading a book because that’s what I’ve always done in this corner of the CBD.

Don’t get me wrong, this place is terrible, and terribly overpriced, and I need a new ritual to replace it. But I’ve been here too many times to forget it and my feet know where to take me if I’m indecisive.

3. Penguins at St Kilda

Just to prove that not all my rituals are edible, if I have an evening off I take the tram down to St Kilda, eschew the cafe strip on Acland Street and head straight for the pier. The walk is long and, most nights, accompanied by mediocre rock music from a nearby restaurant with its bass widening across the water. About halfway up there are little resting huts on opposite sides of the path that look like bus stops. This is around the point where sounds from the shore have dissipated and you can hear the lapping of the water against the pier.

A bit further up is the teahouse, a kiosk that was renovated in 2003 after a fire burnt down its historic predecessor, which is always closed at the time of night I visit. Beyond that is a long pile of rocks that serves as a breakwater and a habitat for the fairy (little) penguins. The secret to seeing fairy penguins is to shut up and sit or stand silently focused on the gaps between the rocks where they will emerge, shake themselves out and then yell at each other. If you’re lucky you’ll see them show off for one another.

The first time I took my partner down there, he tried to take a photo (sans flash, of course). I told him to stick it in his memory hole. There are special moments you need to leave to the night, never to be reviewed except in your head and those of the people you shared it with. Seeing the penguins is always in that category. It’s never more fun to take a photo.

4. Zine binge at Sticky Institute

Being from Sydney where zine culture is best described as ‘underground’ (and not in a cool Berlin nightclub kind of way, more like a wombat hole kind of way), it’s hard to get a hold of those precious stapled pieces of people’s lives. Apart from the Sydney Writers’ Festival zine fair, which is fortunately now an established part of the program, my two most reliable sources of zines are from Sticky Institute in Melbourne and the Sunday fair at Newcastle’s This is Not Art Festival.

The problem with the SWF and TINA events is that they are often hijacked by things that are, well, not zines. Don’t get me wrong, I love maker’s markets and emerging designer wares and I do drop cash on these stalls, but there are so many ways to sell a necklace and there are so few ways to sell a zine (without giving most of the content away) that I think it’s kind of rude to sell jewellery instead of photocopied genius. So I go to Sticky Institute because it is full of zines and I spend $100 on the latest works that take my fancy and I walk away happy because it will all fit inside my bag and I won’t have to pay to check in my luggage.

5. Hudson’s coffee at the airport

Hudson’s is a Melbourne coffee chain with coffee that is not as bad as Gloria Jeans but not quite as good as the average Melbourne cafe (a pretty high standard though, which means the beverages are at least palatable). It makes up for the shortfall by offering quite decent flavoured coffee. I’m a sucker for a white chocolate mocha, even though it has a zillion kilojoules, so I’ll get one at the airport Hudson’s if I have time before boarding. It’s now a thing.

Until my recent visits, however, I didn’t realise that there was only one Hudson’s in the domestic airport, and that it was positioned on the Virgin side. My last two flights being with Jetstar, I’ve had to contemplate getting an expensive coffee at the cafe/bar they have there and risk having a bad coffee. One thing you have to say for chains is that at least the product is consistent. Both times I opted out of a caffeine fix and instead pulled out a squashed, slightly stale kolace for dinner.

Ritual contenders

So I’ve been looking to replace my ritual visits to International Cakes. Here are some contenders:

  1. Helados Jauja, Carlton. It’s expensive for ice cream, but damned if it’s not comparable to Sydney’s Gelato Messina and I’ve been there twice now…). 
  2. Storm in a Teacup, Collingwood. Expensive, rare tea—done properly.
  3. Incube8tor, Fitzroy. Retail space for emerging designers to show their wares. Always something interesting.
  4. Lord of the Fries, Elizabeth Street. Nom. They do have a Sydney store, but I’m rarely at that end of town whereas I’m always waiting for a tram on this corner when I’m in Melbourne.

Do you have a ritual when you revisit a place?

Category: Play | LEAVE A COMMENT
August 9

Angels in America review (Sydney)

Tony Kushner’s potent script comes to life in the well crafted Belvoir production

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Part 2: Perestroika

Performances: 21 July 2013 (Theatre Royal, Sydney)

  • Angels in America is a play about a gay man dying of AIDS who wrestles with an angel.
  • Angels in America is a play about his Jewish boyfriend coming to terms with his abandonment of the relationship.
  • Angels in America is a play about a man realising that his exemplary Mormon behaviour does not represent who he is.
  • Angels in America is a play about his emotionally damaged wife dealing with the loss of her husband.
  • Angels in America is a play about a lawyer’s quest for power and the things he cannot do to maintain it.

Angels in (a troubled) America

‘Angels in America’ is a multi-faceted play, one that benefits from the reflection of different kinds of light. To call this a ‘gay’* play would be very narrow; although the majority of characters in it are gay and male, the real heart is a search for identity against the backdrop of Reagan-era USA. There are also overlapping themes of dependency and survival while chaos reigns, one that comes to fruition in the second part, ‘Perestroika’.

I first saw Millennium Approaches at the New Theatre some years ago. Unfortunately Tyran Parke, whose name on the billing was a lot of the reason I wanted to see it, was ill that day and the part of Joe Pitt was played by an understudy who needed the support of a nearby script. My friend then recommended the 2003 telemovie series, now available on DVD, which I sought and bought and watched and loved.

When I pitched the seven-hour double feature to my partner, who is best described in this context as a well regarded amateur scriptwriter, he agreed to see it for its reputation, although he didn’t know much about it. It turns out I misrepresented it to him, but to good effect; I had always classified it as a drama, which is untrue. It is a comedy with dramatic undertones, but it is a comedy foremost. The characters don’t have conversations, they speak in repartee.

Repartee requires balance between wit and timing without straying into overacting or overemphasising the joke and the Belvoir ensemble were perfect in this respect. Armed with Kushner’s dialogue, the actors’ rhythm was spot on and the performance all the better for it. From this foundation they deftly built the complex web of each character’s identity and their relationships with the others. (Artfully summarised later in Prior’s remark “This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother. It’s a long story.”)

While the wit is enjoyable, a lot of emotional punch actually comes from quiet transitional lines. The character who does this best is Harper. I must admit I never took to Harper in previous viewings (play and TV series) mostly because it is easy to pigeonhole her as an abandoned wife with emotional problems. But in this production she really came of her own. After Prior tells her that her husband’s a homo she says: “I have to go now. Something just fell apart.” That small remark is enough for us to see deep into her as a person and her relationship to Joe.

The most impressive aspect of the cast was the lack of a dominant actor. While Marcus Graham and Robyn Nevin are certainly well known, the ensemble played as an ensemble, with great support from the cast members in minor character roles.

The only thing I didn’t like about the production was our seats. We were in the dress circle, near the front for the first play and in the middle for the second, and this was too high to get the full thrust of the performances, most of which is played as duologues. And for those who don’t know the Theatre Royal, the seat pitch in there makes budget airline seats look generous by comparison. We were lucky to have several breaks during the seven hours—two per play and a dinner break in between—but by the end our knees were aching, which took a sliver off the enjoyment of the play.

We paid something in the vicinity of $350 for two people to see both plays and it was money well spent. If you can afford it, go. If you can’t, track down the DVD of the 2003 telemovie series and roll around in Kushner for a while. This is a play that gets better with age; poignant when it debuted in the early 1990s, and now just as relevant in a world where social politics in a doomed world becomes increasingly complex.

Play rating: 9/10
Enjoyment rating: 8/10

Directed by Eamon Flack

Paula Arundell
Mitchell Butel
Marcus Graham
Amber McMahon
Luke Mullins
Robyn Nevin
DeObia Oparei
Ashley Zukerman

* There is a very funny episode of The IT Crowd where Roy, Moss and Jen go to the theatre after securing tickets through a colleague. They don’t know what they’re there to see. It turns out to be ‘Gay! – A Gay Musical’.

Jen reads the poster: “A story of a young man trying to find his sexuality in the uncaring Thatcher years. Warning: Contains scenes of graphic homoeroticism.”
Moss: “Oh no! … It’s set in the 80s!”

Category: Play | LEAVE A COMMENT
April 30

Academic vs social philosophy

I received my first real blog comment this afternoon. Someone who wished to remain anonymous (who called him/herself ‘Anon’ and left his/her email address as from a University of Sydney IP address sent through the following comment for moderation on my About page:

By ‘social philosopher’, I’m assuming that you mean ‘dabbler in observing human behaviour and trying to explain it’, rather than ‘career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Mill, Plato and Kant’*. Sorry to sound petty and childish, but I have a MAJOR issue with people calling themselves ‘philosophers’ when, well, they’re not.

I didn’t publish it because, well, it kind of looks stupid to have a slightly barbed comment on your own About page, but I thought it would make an all right topic to post on. So let’s do a line-by-line breakdown:

SocratesBy ‘social philosopher’, I’m assuming that you mean ‘dabbler in observing human behaviour and trying to explain it’

Well yes, I did mean ‘dabbler’ in the same sense that someone who occasionally plays soccer on a Sunday afternoon is not a footballer. I philosophise for recreation, which is why I used the term ‘social philosopher’: I was going for something akin to ‘social drinker’.

The second part of that segment made me realise that ‘social’ can be taken to mean ‘of society’, which is an adjectival failing on my part. In fact, this limits the kind of philosophy I practise because I don’t just observe human behaviour and try to explain it, which is more like behavioural studies, sociology, cultural studies or psychology (or a confluence of all of those areas).

I like to think I try to find answers for broader questions about the nature of existence, not just human behaviour or just humans or just behaviour. I like to think, full stop.

rather than ‘career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Mill, Plato and Kant’

Hmm. I take issue with the idea that only a career academic can be called a philosopher. It’s kind of like saying only a career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Keynes can be called an economist. Is there room for practitioners?

Case in point: is Alain de Botton a philosopher? He has a Master’s in Philosophy but he is not a career academic. He’s best known as a writer (of philosophical books) and founder of The School of Life, which actively challenges traditional universities. I consider him a philosopher, as do many others.

I also take issue, as I think many academics would, with the idea that all career academics do is analyse the work of published philosophers. Research is nice, but where’s the value in it without turning that analysis into more questions, and more possible answers? I don’t pretend to know what the outcomes are for career academics, but I suspect they’re related to writing and presenting papers, or publishing books. At some point a philosopher becomes a Mill, Plato or Kant.

Sorry to sound petty and childish, but I have a MAJOR issue with people calling themselves ‘philosophers’ when, well, they’re not.

You know, that’s okay. I used to hate when people called themselves a ‘writer’ just because they learnt the alphabet and can string a sentence together. I think I’ve gotten over it, though. I figured if writing was so important to someone that they identified as one, then even if they never wrote a word, or never earnt a cent from their writing, they could identify as a writer. It didn’t take away from the fact that I identify as a writer too.

I do a lot of work with project managers and the discipline is at a point where anyone who manages a project considers themselves a project manager. You don’t have to meet any pre-requisites before you can call yourself project manager, unlike being an engineer for example, although knowledgeable employers and recruiters are now looking for qualifications, certifications and marks of competency. In many ways project management is in the process of becoming a recognised (read: with a legal, educational and licensing status) profession. It is not there yet.

Where does this leave someone who calls him/herself a philosopher? A philosopher is not a profession in the true sense of having a legal status and licensing requirements, although it is interesting to note the inclusion of philosophers on Wikipedia’s List of professions. I grant that there are educational pre-requisites to become a philosophy academic, but I think that’s the ‘academic’ part rather than the ‘philosophy’ part.

I’m not even sure ‘philosopher’ is a listed occupation, at least I can’t find the census data that states how many people identify as philosophers. Do you put ‘academic’ or ‘philosopher’ on your census form, Anon? Can you be a philosopher without being an academic? (Refer to my point about Alain de Botton above.)

So what do I mean when I use the word ‘philosopher’? I mean someone who questions the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence**, and studies these areas internally (ie through thinking) or externally (ie reading, listening, debating, experiencing). For that you don’t need to go to university or become an academic.

I’m kind of sad that you didn’t leave your contact details, Anon, because I would like to find out what you mean when you use the word ‘philosopher’. Maybe it’s to do with a certain analytical process that a philosopher practises when s/he philosophises?

And another thing…

I would’ve thought of all the disciplines, philosophy would be one of the most inclusive about people identifying as philosophers. At least I thought philosophers might be more open-minded about what makes someone a philosopher.

I went to Macquarie University from 1999-2002 and completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Media and Cultural Studies. In first and second year I also took some philosophy classes and did well enough for the philosophy department to send me an invitation to switch majors. I chose Cultural Studies for reasons I won’t go into here.

I currently facilitate for the social (as in recreational, interactive) philosophy group Sydney Socrates Cafe. The organisers Tim Dean (philosophy PhD student) and Katherine Lustig have a more inclusive view of who is a philosopher.

My favourite philosopher is Michel Foucault.

* I closed the single quotation mark here. You can take the girl out of editing…
** That’s from the Oxford Dictionary, thanks dictionary widget.