Wednesday, 31 December 2008


“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year's resolutions…” - Joey Adams

It is good to be home, even though we were away for only very few days. The journey back was uneventful and we had a very quiet New Year’s Eve at home. Similarly today, a very quiet New Year’s Day, pottering around home and enjoying a day of leisure.

It is now a well-entrenched custom in many countries while recovering from the New Year’s Eve party, to set aside a few minutes on New Year’s Day and make New Year’s Resolutions. Usually these resolutions are of the self-improvement type, renouncing bad habits, improving oneself as a person and generally making oneself a better member of society. One may vow to give up smoking, become involved in a community group, drink less, take up a new hobby or become fit. Needless to say that in most cases, these resolutions are forgotten barely has the sun set on January the 1st! Some surveys that have been carried out re-enforce this, with as many as 95% of New Year’s Resolutions not being adhered to or fulfilled. Hardly worth the effort of making these resolutions, is it?

In many countries it was believed that whatever one did on January 1st would influence what transpired over the whole year. Hence, this was a day of merry-making, good food, sweet words and pleasantries. No work was done, nothing was taken out of the house (only brought in). Especially so with money, fuel, matches and bread such that one would not lack any of these during the year. No bills or debts were paid on this day and nothing was lent out. If one had to take something out of the house that day, a coin was taken out the previous night and then brought in the next morning before one took out the item.
Take out then take in, bad luck will begin;
Take in, then take out good luck will come about.

The Romans introduced the custom of celebrating the beginning of the year on January 1st in 46 BC. They called this celebration the January calendae, and they decorated their houses with lights and greenery for the three days that the festivities lasted. People exchanged gifts that were carefully chosen so as to ensure the propitiousness of the year ahead. Gifts of honey and sweets were given and meant that one wished the receiver to have a year of peace and sweetness; gifts of money or gold meant that the year would be prosperous; while giving lamps or candles meant that the year would be filled with light and happiness. The emperor also received gifts from the citizens to wish him a happy year ahead. This tradition was adopted by the countries that Rome had subjugated.

In England, the feudal lords received samples of produce from the peasants tilling their land. The lords in turn sent to the King something more valuable (gold was always a popular gift!). Amongst the common people a traditional New Year’s Day gift was a dried orange stuck with cloves and a sprig of rosemary tied with silk ribbons. Many Englishmen used to give their wives money so that they could buy pins for the whole year ahead. Before the industrial revolution of the 1800s, pins and needles were very expensive as they were hand-made. After the 1800s when pins and needles were mass-produced, the custom disappeared, but the term pin-money is still used to describe money set aside for minor personal expenses.

It is St Basil’s Day in Greece today, and St Basil was one of the Fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was born in Caesarea (Palestine) in the fourth century AD and during his life he sailed to Greece, where he was active, until his death on the 1st of January. Many legends relating to his life commemorate his kindness to children. This has led to the custom of gift giving on New Year’s Day in Greece. St Basil has been equated with the Santa Claus of other nations. Being the first day of the year, tradition has it that one must receive money on this day (and hence continue to receive it everyday of that year!). This is the Greek custom of the “bonamas” (a term perhaps related to the Italian buon anno or even the French bonne âme), a monetary gift to friends and relatives. The vassilopitta, St Basil’s Cake, is another tradition, and this is a sweet, raised yeast cake which contains a silver or gold coin (depending on the family’s finances!). The father of the family cuts the cake after the New Year is heralded in and distributes the pieces in strict order: First, one for the Saints, then one for the House, then one for each member of the family, from the most senior to the youngest child. Then pieces for the guests, livestock and then for the poor, the remainder being for the “house”. The person finding the lucky coin is assured of luck for the rest of the year.

The tradition of the “first foot” or podhariko is widespread in Greece, as it is in some other European countries, and the British Isles. This involves the first visitor to enter the house on New Year’s Day. He sets the pattern of good or bad luck that will enter the house for the year. The luckiest first foot is a dark-haired stranger who must be male. Unlucky first foots are female, red or blond-haired, cross-eyed, with eyebrows that meet across the nose. The first foot must have been outside the house before midnight and must enter the house any time after the clock has struck midnight, as long as he is the first to come in. Good luck is ensured if the “first foot” brings with him some token gift, a loaf of bread symbolising sustenance for the whole year, coal or wood symbolising warmth or a few coins or some salt, symbolising prosperity.

Other Greek traditional sweets for New Year’s Day (except the vassilopitta) are melomakarona (honey macaroons) and dhiples (thin, crisply fried pancakes served with honey and crushed nuts). A renewal of the water in the house is another custom. Fresh spring water is drawn and taken into the house on New Year’s morning as St Basil’s Water. This is used to fill ewers, jugs, vases and other containers, thus blessing the house for the whole year.

Carolling is popular and the carollers must be given some money to ensure prosperity for the coming year. The carol sung is the New Year’s kalanda (from the Latin calendae, first day of the month). The carollers often hold a model of a sailing ship, beautifully made and decorated, symbolising St Basil’s ship on which he sailed to Greece. They accompany themselves with steel triangles, drums, fifes and other folk instruments while going around from house to house.

I hope that your year is filled with health and happiness and that your larder is never empty, your table always blessed and your loved ones always content.

Here are the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks for you to enjoy!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008


Today was out last day here in Auckland and we decide to take it easy, sleeping in, having a late breakfast and then just ambling around the City and then making our way to the airport for our afternoon flight to Melbourne. The weather was extremely pleasant, warm and sunny and the Aucklanders were out in full force, making the most of the last shopping day of 2008.

We walked up towards Albert Park and had a wander through the pathways and lawns, making our way up to the University of Auckland. This is New Zealand's pre-eminent research-led University. Established in 1883, it has grown into an international centre of learning and academic excellence and is New Zealand's largest university. Its mission is to be an internationally recognised, research-led university, known for the excellence of its teaching, research, and service to its local, national and international communities. It aims to be a vibrant and intellectually challenging place of learning, nurturing a community of scholars who share a passion for discovery, the advance of knowledge and human progress.

The signature building of the University is the Clock Tower, which is a wonderful Victorian confection in white, reminding one of a wedding cake bedecked in icing sugar filigree decorations. The campus is quite extensive and is an agglomeration of modern and Victorian buildings, beautiful parks, gardens, roads and pathways.

We went back to Albert Park and walked back towards the Queens St, finding the Auckland City Public Library. This is a beautiful new multistoried building which as well as containing an extensive book collection, there are a couple of galleries in which exhibitions are organised. We visited the gallery which had the “Once Upon a Time” exhibition. This was a marvellous exhibition of fairy tale books for children, from the 18th century to the present time. The illustrations were fantastic and the range of books presented truly amazing. Well worth visiting!

We made our way back to the hotel making our farewells to the fair city of Auckland. IT was an excellent break, very relaxing and filled with some novelty although we had visited here once before some years ago. Now at the airport we are awaiting the boarding call for our flight, which has been delayed coming in and hence delayed going out. Hopefully, we’ll be at home for New Year’s Eve tonight…



The itinerary for today was the South. We once again used public transport, with which we are very impressed, and travelled as far south as Papakura, a rather rustic outer suburb and then came back towards town via Manukau and its rather slick shopping centre adjacent to Rainbow’s End (a theme park mainly of families with children). We then travelled back through Newmarket, a bustling shopping district and finally the wonderful Parnell.

New Zealand is a curious mixture of the old and the new, with some pockets remaining quite old-fashioned and making one think that one is caught in a time-warp. Other areas are very modern and up-market, with all new buildings, latest technology and quite the hustle and bustle of a cosmopolitan metropolis. We saw evidence of both aspects during this trip and everything in between as well.

Papakura was of the time-warp variety, a sleepy little outer suburb that seemed more like a little town. All around the Auckland area, and especially so in the outer suburbs one sees more Maoris and Islanders making up the general population, with a sizeable proportion of Indians, Japanese and Koreans (although the last-mentioned three groups are more likely to prefer the urban areas). This makes for a very lively mix of people and something that impresses one about the Maoris is their more widespread integration into the population – more so than the Australian aboriginal population.

Manukau was rather boring but seemed to be the hub of the region with its large shopping centre and the adjacent theme park. Down towards the sea one may find more sympathetic and tourist-worthy niches and pockets of picturesqueness. However, the region is largely one of business and industry, and of quiet efficiency. A short distance away is the Auckland international airport and this would contribute to the area being a hub of activity. Close to Manukau are the Auckland Botanic Gardens and these are certainly worth a visit if one is horticulturally inclined. There are numerous areas with themes ranging from the natives, to roses, palms, herbs, camellias, perennials and succulents. An onsite café serves breakfast and lunch daily.

Newmarket is bustling inner city suburb which boasts a very busy shopping area with several strip shopping streets as well as a major shopping centre. Surrounding it are residential and light industrial areas. It is well worth a visit as there some interesting little shops in amongst the regulation branches of the multinational franchises.

We took the bus and after a short ride down towards the City we found ourselves in Parnell. This old suburb is adjacent to the City centre and was initially designed s accommodation of working class people. It then became gentrified and is now an exclusive residential area with many excellent restaurants, specialty shops and many boutiques, souvenir shops and art galleries. It is rather lovely to explore on foot and then to have lunch or dinner in one of the excellent restaurants there.



Well, the weatherman was right! We woke up to a dull and grey morning today and at about 8:00 am, the rain began to fall. New Zealand seems to be blessed with good rains right around the whole year, making for a very green and lush countryside, even in summer. It was rather surprising not seeing the usual warnings and signs about water restrictions that one sees in Australian hotels these days. Our hotel had absolutely no such signage and the tap water was excellent in terms of purity and drinkability.

Although it rained on and off all day, we walked everywhere with the help of a large umbrella that the hotel provided for us. The rain ranged from the annoying drizzle to the sudden downpour, but we managed not to get at all wet. We first visited the Auckland Art Gallery, which is in temporary residence in a building next to its usual lovely old Victorian home. The original building is being renovated and extended so that the exhibition space is increased by 50%. The renovated gallery will reopen in 2011.

I must say that we found the gallery very disappointing. Although the gallery was ample, the rooms generous and the exhibition spaces extremely well-disposed, the art works exhibited were unfortunately sadly below expectations. Some modernist rubbish created by the untalented for the pretentious critics to wax lyrical over, some photographs and photocollages that were quite grotesque and a couple of themed exhibits that had pieces of varying quality and were a pot pourri of old and modern (mainly indifferent) works. One of the exhibitions was “The Enchanted Garden” and all of the exhibits had to do with a gardening theme. For such a wonderful theme, the works displayed were rather prosaic.

Only a few pieces were memorable and were capable of evincing some sort of emotion (with the exception of “the emperor has no clothes on” type of reaction that the majority of works evoked). We were assured by the curators that the permanent exhibits that are usually on show are much better, but we have to revisit the gallery in 2011 in its newly appointed building. Fortunately the entry was free on Monday, otherwise I would have bewailed the entrance fee, however low it may have been.

We walked to the Domain, where the Museum of Auckland takes pride of place. The Domain is a huge park adjacent to the City and is one of the crowning glories of the city. Hectares of parkland, manicured lawns, well-planted trees and pleasure gardens surround the hill on which the rather severe classical-style museum sits. Very close to the museum is the Winter Garden with two enormous conservatories and a formal pond, fernery and refreshments kiosk.

We entered the museum paying a very modest donation fee of five dollars each and found ourselves in a very spacious atrium area. It was quite a busy day with numerous people around, given the holiday and the rainy day. A day in the museum is de rigueur under such circumstances. The museum is one of the best places to visit in Auckland. Excellent exhibits, generally well displayed, a broad variety of thematic displays, an excellent interactive children’s museum area, a fantastic array of Maori and Pacific Islands artefacts and on the topmost floor the war memorial and the monument to the unknown soldier.

A dinosaur exhibition with its centerpiece of a complete fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was interesting and informative. The children were once again having a field day here and little gasps of pleasure alternated with giggles and a frightened whimper now and then. The Auckland Museum is definitely worth a day’s visit or even more if you wish to do the multiplicity of exhibits full justice.

Close to the museum within the vast parkland of the Domain, is the Winter Garden. This is a gorgeous spot where two huge conservatories face each other across a large formal lily pond surrounded by a colonnade over which wisterias and other climbing plants ramble. One of the conservatories is dedicated to seasonal flowering plants with an enormous display of fuchsias, begonias, alstromoerias, orchids, dahlias, begonias, hydrangeas, sunflowers and several more colourful blooms. The other conservatory is a true tropical hothouse in which there is a central lily pond where Nile waterlilies and Victoria amazonica waterlilies bloom, surrounded by orchids, banana plants, ginger plants, tropical ferns, bromeliads, tuberous begonias, heliconias and other tropical jungle plants.

Adjacent to the conservatories is the open air fernery, which is quite an amazing place as one descends down a ramp and some stairs to a shay sunken garden where pools of water mirror the fern fronds and where the quiet air is only disturbed by the babbling of the running water and the drone of a lone bee frustrated by the lack of flowers in this place where greenery reigns supreme. A place to truly heal and nourish the soul.

We walked back to town through the Domain and the University of Auckland. The weather, which had been showery for the most of the day turned rainy and we were grateful of the large golf umbrella that was lent to us by the hotel. We walked by the old city cemetery and in the grey and wet gloom it was indeed a melancholy place where one could contemplate the vanitas vanitatum of life and serve as a useful memento mori.

We got back to the hotel slightly wet, but nevertheless replete of the day’s activities and the wonderful sights we had seen. I was quite thankful for the lack of water restrictions as a nice, long, warm shower hit the spot.



We bought a Discovery Day Pass today for $13 each and with it we were able to travel on any of the public transport vehicles (trains, ferries, buses) for the whole day in all parts of the Auckland metropolitan area. This proved to be a wise decision that allowed us to see quite a lot of the city and the suburbs efficiently and cheaply. We chose to go North of the city and visit several of the seaside suburbs, some of which are quite idyllic. We were surprised by how hilly is the area that the greater Auckland is built on.

We went first to Devonport and Takapuna, built on a peninsula directly opposite the Waitemata Harbour. Both of these suburbs are quite lovely, especially Devonport, which has a country town charm and is very much geared towards the tourist and the holidaymaker. There are numerous tourist shops, art galleries, cafés, restaurants, bars, parks and other facilities for both locals and tourists who wish to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of Auckland. The town is accessible by ferry from Auckland, the ride taking only 15 minutes. Alternatively one may go by bus via Takapuna.

Takapuna is more suburban and cosmopolitan, but there is also a holiday feel to the suburb, as there are excellent hotel facilities, a long swimming beach with white sands and the same tourist shops and facilities that the visitor expects. Whereas Devonport is more historical, Takapuna is more modern sporting even a couple of high rise apartment buildings and a big Westfield shopping centre, as well as the old style shopping strip.

We then took the bus and travelled up the north coast to the Eastern bays, going as far as up Torbay and the recreation area of Long Bay Regional Park. Long Bay is a lovely spot where sandy beaches alternate with rocky bluffs and is the first area to the North of Auckland outside the greater metropolitan area. This is a very popular spot for holidays, camping, swimming and relaxation. Coming back from Torbay, which is a small town sitting on the crest of a hill with magnificent views, one comes down to Browns Bay, which is another seaside suburb that has a large shopping area, beach facilities and where quite few retirees seem to live. We then took the bus back to Takapuna and finally back to Auckland.

Something which we noted was that New Zealand senior citizens travel free on public transport on presentation of their “Gold Pass”. This is such a good idea and a sign of an enlightened government. Several other observations made us think that the government both local and national seems to be taking care of its citizens well, better than Australia is doing presently. Australia was as New Zealand is in this respect about 25-30 years ago. Globalisation and following US trends has made the social welfare system deteriorate in Australia in the last couple of decades. All’s the pity as the lifestyle for the majority of people seems a lot better in New Zealand than in Australia at the moment.

The weather was absolutely wonderful today, hovering in the mid-20s with a gentle sunshine and no wind. The weather bureau is warning about rain tomorrow, so it was a good idea that we ventured out north today!



Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and its largest port. It occupies a narrow isthmus between Waitemata Harbour (in the east) and Manukau Harbour (in the southwest). It was established in 1840 by Governor William Hobson as the capital of the colonial government and was named for George Eden, earl of Auckland, British first lord of the Admiralty and later governor-general of India. It was incorporated as a borough in 1851 and remained the capital until superseded by the city of Wellington in 1865. It was made a city in 1871. The most extensive urban area in New Zealand, Auckland also has the country's greatest concentration of indigenous Maori and has large numbers of Polynesians from other islands in the South Pacific. The population of the greater urban area is about 1.2 million people.

The city is a focal point of road and rail transportation, with the urban area being also served by New Zealand’s leading international airport, at Mangere. Auckland’s most important feature is Waitemata Harbour, a 180-square-km body of water that has maximum channel depths of 10 metres and serves overseas and intercoastal shipping. The port’s principal exports include iron, steel, dairy products, and meat and hides. Petroleum, iron and steel products, sugar, wheat, and phosphates are imported. Other industries of the Auckland area include engineering, publishing, and metal trades; the manufacture of paint, glass, plastics, chemicals, cement, and a variety of consumer goods; vehicle assembly and boatbuilding; and food processing, brewing, and sugar refining. A large iron and steel mill was opened at Glenbrook (32 km south) in 1969. The Auckland Harbour Bridge (1959) links the city with the rapidly growing, primarily residential North Shore suburbs and with Devonport, the chief naval base and dockyard for New Zealand. Construction of a natural-gas pipeline running from the Maui field to Auckland was completed in 1977.

Major institutions within the urban area include the War Memorial Museum, the Museum of Transport and Technology, the National Maritime Museum, the Auckland Art Gallery, the public library network, the University of Auckland (1957; from 1882 to 1957, Auckland University College, a constituent part of the University of New Zealand), the town hall, and several teacher-training colleges. Also in the locality are swimming and surfing beaches, several extinct volcanic cones, golf courses, sporting grounds, and parks and reserves. In 2000 and 2003 Auckland played host to the America’s Cup yachting race finals, both events helping to boost tourism in the region.

We wandered around the City today and took in some of the sights. Queen Street is the main street and the main shopping area within the CBD. A couple of noteworthy arcades off this street are the Queen’s Arcade and the Strand Arcade, the former better than the latter. Towards the north one finds the Victorian town hall with its distinctive clock tower. Next tot his is the Aotea Square and directly across the square is the Metro centre with its cinema complex and restaurants, cafés, bars and shops.

Albert Park is the major park within the city precinct and this is a typical Victorian park laid out in imitation of the great parks of Great Britain, with its lawns, majestic northern hemisphere trees, statuary, fountains and formal flower beds. The elaborate Victorian fountain is a central feature of the park and nearby is the statue of Queen Victoria which was unveiled in 1899 to mark the sixtieth jubilee of her reign. Adjacent to the park are the lovely old Law Courts, another Victorian building in the grand style. One may then walk towards Chancery St where there is a pedestrian shopping mall with restaurants, cafés and specialty boutiques. Further on, Vulcan Lane takes one back to Queen St.

Following Queen St down towards the sea, one finds the Britomart district dominated by its Victorian transport centre, where one obtains information, tickets and other tourist advice. It is also a transport hub with an underground train station and numerous bus termini around it (including a free city circle bus). Further along is Quay St, running parallel to the shore. The magnificent Ferry Building dominates Quay St and is where one may dine, shop and go through to embark on the ferries that transport one across the harbour.

We visited Victoria Markets situated just outside the CBD down Victoria St and located in an old incinerator building complex. This used to burn the city’s rubbish in the 19th century, but was soon put out of commission and is now home to several permanent stalls and shops, restaurants, cafés and tourist attractions. Opposite this is Victoria Park, not as impressive as Albert Park, but another welcome oasis of green in the City.


“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” - Hilaire Belloc

Boxing Day

New Zealand is located in the Southern Hemisphere in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. There are 3 main Islands: The North Island, the South Island and Stewart Island. The total combined land area of 268,680 square kilometers is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Colorado and a little larger than the United Kingdom. The North and South Islands are separated by 22 km channel called the Cook Strait. The North Island is mainly hilly with isolated mountains, including volcanoes, two of which are still active. Lowlands on the North Island are mostly coastal or are the Waikato Valley. The South Island is very mountainous with numerous fjords and harbours, making for an extremely long coastline relative to its area. New Zealand also administers the South Pacific island group of Tokelau and claims a section of the Antarctic continent. Niue and the Cook Islands are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand.

The first people to colonise New Zealand’s soil were Polynesians, who came from other Pacific islands to New Zealand around 800 AD. They named the islands Aotearoa (“Land of the Long, White Cloud”). These people were the antecedents of the Maori people of New Zealand and they remained in New Zealand until 1642 AD when the Dutch stumbled onto it. However, the Dutch found the local Maoris very belligerent and did not stay. No other Europeans explored the island until Captain James Cook first arrived in New Zealand in 1769 AD on the Endeavour. Captain Cook successfully charted the islands and put New Zealand on the map. Relations with the Maoris for Cook’s first visit were good but soon deteriorated. In 1818 AD the “Musket Wars” began and 20,000 people died in 12 years of fighting. 1840 AD brought the first real colonisation to New Zealand in Wanganui, New Plymouth, Nelson and Wellington. Also in 1840 AD the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the colonists and approximately 50 Maori chiefs, granting sovereignty to the Queen of England but retaining the ownership of the lands, forests, fisheries and other property. This was a crucial step in achieving peace between the Maori and European people.

1856 AD saw New Zealand become a self-governing British colony and the beginning of their gold rush. Wellington became the official capital also in 1865. By 1867 AD Maori were given the right to vote. In 1893 AD women were given the right to vote (25 years before the US or Britain!). In the 1900s, New Zealand’s population was hard hit from first World War. New Zealand suffered more casualties per capita than any other country in the war and to add tot eh casualties, the worldwide influenza epidemic in 1918-1919 took its toll. Then again by World War II more population losses resulted. In 1947 New Zealand became fully independent.

New Zealand became an outspoken voice against nuclear weapons and testing in the late 70s and early 80s. With a defining moment being the bombing of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor by French secret agents in 1985. That same year New Zealand’s government banned visits by any ships carrying nuclear weapons. In 1990 public opinion forced the new National government to maintain their anti-nuclear stance. New Zealand today is a very clean, green, and rural place where not a lot has changed over the last 50 years.

The population of New Zealand is roughly four million people. Despite the plentiful amount of land available per person, most people live in or around New Zealand’s major cities. Auckland in the North Island is home to more than a million while the capital Wellington (also in the North island) has a population of 400,000. Close to 80% of the population is of European origin with most being of British heritage while the others being mainly from the Netherlands, Germany, and Croatia. Only 13% are Maori and 5% Pacific Islander. There is also a growing Asian population with immigration from Taiwan, Hong Kong, & Korea having more than doubled since 1990.

New Zealand is an interesting mix of European and Maori cultures. It’s not uncommon to see people with very intricate tattoos in the traditional Maori style in business suits in Auckland. The main sports are yachting, fishing, golf, rugby and cricket. Even the national rugby team, the New Zealand All Blacks, do a traditional Maori ‘Haka’ dance at the beginning of each match, to frighten their opponents. It is also a land full of extreme sports; it is the birthplace of bungee jumping, jet-boat riding, white water kayaking and many other activities to get the adrenaline going. Tourism is one of New Zealand’s main sources of earnings. However, farming and agriculture are also a very big part of New Zealand life. New Zealand has around 47 million sheep. Meat, wool, dairy products and food processing are the next largest source of earnings for the country. Many areas of the North Island grow many kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants, and wine.

New Zealand had proved to be a very stable democracy over the past hundred or so years. However, there is some tension centered around Maori claims for land based on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The 1984 – 1990 Labor Party acknowledged the validity of these claims for fishing grounds and other assets and set up the Waitangi Tribunal to consider specific Maori claims. Progress toward these claims continues but is a hot political topic still. In 1997 New Zealand elected their first female Prime Minister and she was beaten by another female in 1999. Helen Clark, elected PM in 1999 successfully lowered unemployment and strengthened the NZ economy. She was re-elected in 2002.

New Zealand’s climate, like its neighbour Australia’s, is the opposite of that in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, summer is from December to March and winter is from June to August. The north part of New Zealand has a subtropical climate and the south part is more temperate. Even on the North Island itself there is a marked difference between the northernmost part, which is more subtropical and the southernmost part which is much more temperate in climate. For example, Wellington seems very like San Francisco in climate and terrain, but Keri Keri in the north is very tropical and near beautiful beaches with white sand and clear waters. Summer temperatures average around 25˚C for the highs and 10˚C for lows in the north. It can be chilly by the sea though with strong winds often blowing. Rain is spread evenly throughout the year and weather can change rapidly.

Interesting Facts about New Zealand:
• Official languages are both English and Maori
• Currency is the NZ Dollar (1 NZ dollar = 0.85 AUD = 0.60 USD = 0.40 Euro)
• Official bird is the Kiwi (a flightless bird as big as a large chicken)
• The Kiwi fruit is also know as Chinese gooseberry and is native to China and Taiwan, but grown commercially in New Zealand
• New Zealanders are often referred to affectionately as “Kiwis”
• European New Zealanders are referred to as “Pakehas” by the Maoris
• New Zealand was home to the now extinct Moa bird, which stood as tall as 3 metres
• New Zealand is one of the very first places to welcome the new day because of its close proximity to the International Dateline
• Religion is predominantly Christian (81% of the population)
• Rugby football is the national game
• Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) is a famous New Zealander, the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest
• New Zealand uses the Metric system
• New Zealanders drive on left side of the road (like drivers in Australia and the UK)

Thursday, 25 December 2008


“At Christmas play and make good cheer, For Christmas comes but once a year” - Thomas Tusser

A Merry Christmas to all! I hope your day is filled with joy and peace and contentment. Whether with family, that special someone, good friends or indeed or all of the above, enjoy the day and make merry.

We are travelling today as I was able to book a very economical trip to New Zealand through a website as it appears that very few people wish to travel on Christmas Day! New Zealand is a four-hour flight from Australia and one the closest international destinations for us. Whenever I have to travel overseas I think of very long flights. Seven, ten, 15, 20 hour flights to get to anywhere reminds me just how faraway and distant from everywhere else our island continent is. I guess New Zealand is even further away from elsewhere.

The birthday flower for today is the white Christmas rose, or hellebore, Helleborus niger, which is symbolic of the Nativity of Christ. In the language of flowers, the white hellebore signifies purity and chastity, but the darker shades of the flower mean calumny and scandal. The white hellebore is also dedicated to St Agnes who is the patron saint of young virgins.

In the past, the day on which Christmas fell was thought to prognosticate the weather and the vicissitudes of the year ahead:
If Christmas falls on a Sunday, that year shall be a warm Winter,
The Summer hot and dry, peace and quiet amongst the married folk.
If on Monday, a misty Winter, the Summer windy and stormy;
Many women will mourn their husbands.
If on a Tuesday, a cold Winter and much snow, the Summer wet,
But good peace amongst the Princes and the Kings.
If on Wednesday, the Winter naughty and hard, the Summer good,
Young people and many cattle will die sore.
If on a Thursday, the Winter mild and the Summer very good and abundant,
But many great men shall perish.
If on a Friday, the Winter neither bad nor good, the Summer harvest indifferent,
Much conflict in the neighbourhoods, treachery and deception.
If on a Saturday, Winter will snow, blow hard winds and bitterly cold,
The Summer good with a harvest full and bounteous,
But war shall rack many lands.

Merry Christmas; Καλά Χριστούγεννα - Kalá Christoúyenna; Joyeux Noël; Feliz Navidad; Buon Natale; Nadolig Llawen; Nollaig faoi shean; God Jul!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


“If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” - Mother Teresa

It’s Christmas Eve and all should be at home with family and their loved ones enjoying all that the season has to offer: Peace, goodwill, happiness, contentment. Christmas brings out the best in us one would hope, but how often is it that our human nature bedeviled as it is with our pettiness and pathetic selfishness gets in the way of our humanity and the worst in us prevails? Charity coexists with cruelty, goodwill with hypocrisy, goodness with evil. How many households tonight hide some sadness and melancholy? How many people are tormented by their inner devils and how many cannot enjoy the simple pleasures of a quiet Christmas Eve at home?

The following poem was inspired by a scene I witnessed as an impressionable six-year-old staring through our balcony door one snowy day, around Christmas. It was my introduction to human cruelty and also to the meaning of charity, which was impressed upon me by my family. Fortunately, the scene I witnessed did not have as tragic an end as my poem does, as my mother intervened, but I wish its tragic ending was only poetic licence. There are many such gloomy endings being acted in various places around the world tonight and on many other a night.

Have a Merry Christmas, friends, and do as much good as you can without having to think twice about it.

White Christmas

White Christmas and the sparrows freeze
On the cathedral roof cross.
A girl in a ragged summer dress
With a voice blue with cold
Cries weakly outside the great church portal:
“Buy your candles, here please …”

Inside, the gold sparkles and the candles burn,
The incense scents the air
And choirs sing with voices heavenly:
“Gloria in excelsis, Deo…”
While bishops in embroidered copes
Read the gospels: “…et in terra pax!”

And the sparrow shakes with feathers ruffled
Roosting on the cross up high.
The sky black with not a star
(All of them shine inside the cathedral
This holiest of nights).
On earth snow cold as steel and a white Christmas.

Little hands tremble icy blue, and wide-open eyes stare
At the fat woman’s rich furs.
The diamonds on her fingers cut cold flesh
With their brilliant flame, while the tiny voice implores:
“Madam, please buy a candle
For our little Jesus due to be born tonight.”

The woman’s narrow eyes colder than snow,
But charity must be done tonight, and sharp-nailed hands
Extract from purse well-stuffed, a few coppers
Carefully counted so that the sum is right
To pay for a candle proferred hopefully
By a small girlish hand, outside the cathedral.

A snaky eye, alert, observes from inside the church
And a harsh voice commands all strident:
“How dare you, worthless urchin,
How come you choose this holy spot to sell unworthy candles?
Away, begone, there’s plenty a blessed candle
In the church for all the faithful to buy…”

With slow dragging steps in snow she goes away,
The candles such a heavy load on childish shoulders.
How will she tell him yet again,
The candles are not sold, even on this day?
Her tears, the only thing hot in her body
Roll down frigid cheeks and fall on snow to freeze.

A sparrow totters and falls from high up
To lie dead in front of the cathedral’s closed doors.
A girl child further down stumbles, falls
Under her load and gratefully expires, freezing in the snow
While dreaming of warm grates and a full belly.
White Christmas so picturesque, outside the cathedral…

Inside, the choir sings, the gold and silver sparkle,
Hundred of candles burn like stars. and incense smokes
The atmosphere redolent with a hundred perfumes.
The fat ladies are too warm under their furs
And the deacon smiles contentedly for
His candles are all sold and his alms box is full…

Tuesday, 23 December 2008


“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” - William James

We went out to a shopping centre today and I must say it definitely felt like Christmas. Although the decorations were more restrained this year, although the shops were less busy, although there was a palpable reduction in the money being spent for gifts and luxuries, despite everything, people were still around and they were still doing their Christmas shopping. A Salvation Army band was playing Christmas carols and collecting money for those in need. A big bin was outside the department store inviting people to contribute gifts for children of poor families who would otherwise not have a gift. A local church group further down the mall was collecting coins to be used for providing a meal for the homeless on Christmas day and another table was full of photographs of third world country kids that needed a sponsor.

Perhaps this year, more than previous ones, people will realise what Christmas is all about. We shall see things more clearly the real meaning of Christmas as the economy is going downhill and the financial climate is worsening. People will surely see beyond the glitter of the tinsel and listen to voices in need beyond the piped carols of the elevator. As our own financial security is threatened we will perhaps feel a little more compassion for those who are even less fortunate than us. The poorer amongst us are often more generous than those of us who are well off. Someone who has little will paradoxically be more likely to share it with someone in greater need than them…

We have several welfare and community service in our neigbourhood. We often visit and provide some assistance, whether it is financial or some kind of volunteer work. A very special place is an old people’s home nearby where each Christmas a special kind of tragedy is played out. Several forgotten elderly people sit listlessly and watch with empty eyes the flashing light of a scraggly Christmas tree by a window, knowing full well they will not glimpse a sign of a loved one coming in to visit them. How many heavy hearts, extinguished eyes and hopeless souls will spend another Christmas battling with memories of happy Christmases past, while the well-wishing staff dole out a “festive meal” for them on yet another sad and lonely Christmas day. And in the meantime, the carols are playing on the PA system throughout the nursing home, contributing to the cheery holiday mood.

What is the true meaning of Christmas and how can we come to understand it? Simple. Visit someone you don’t know and take them a little something this Christmas – nothing much, just a token for your thought for that stranger, who nevertheless is a fellow human being. Someone you have never seen before, in a nursing home, a prison, an orphanage, a mental hospital. The rejects of our society, those people that the grand machine has chewed on and has spat out. Even more than what you take to them, give them a gift of some of your time. Sit and talk with them, share a conversation, small talk, a pleasantry. Clasp their hand and give them a gift of hope. Hope that the world still has some decency and compassion and care and fellow feeling. Charity is more than giving an odd coin now and then to the man shaking a can at you in the mall. It’s even more than signing a big cheque for your favourite charity organisation every year. Charity is humanity and sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, with a genuine attempt to try and alleviate that suffering in a palpable, real way.

The hand extended toward you is not always begging for money, it may only want to be clasped and held for a while, with your heart open and your ears unstopped.

Have a peaceful and loving Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2008


“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” - John LeCarre

Films made from novels can be a real mess, especially if the novel is one you have enjoyed reading very much. It is seldom that a novel can give rise to a good movie, but I have seen some such films, proving that if the sensitivity is there, a film-maker can do justice to the author. The film we watched last weekend was an interesting concept, which was a film based on a novel, which novel was based on six other novels. Highly derivative, and here I am writing about it, adding yet another layer on top of everything.

Authors have always been inspired by other authors and novels have inspired other novels. Quite fashionable in the last few years are “reading group novels”, where the novel revolves around a group of people who take part in a book club that discusses a new novel every month. I recently read one by Elizabeth Noble called “The Reading Group”, which was rather soppy and not worth bothering with. Before that I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, which was much better, and quite enjoyable. Now this film based on a book I haven’t read (nor do I wish to read, now that I have seen the film), the book being “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler.

The film of “The Jane Austen Book Club” was made in 2007 by Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay. Let me warn you, this is a classic “chic flick”, which is all about a group of six Californians who get together to discuss Jane Austen’s novels, one a month for six months. There are five women and one man, all at some crisis point in their lives and all identifying with characters and plots out of Jane Austen’s books. Although there are references to Austen’s novels in the film, even if you haven’t read the novels you can follow the film and I promise it won’t spoil your reading of Austen.

There is a lot of talking in the movie – a couple of witty lines, but also a lot of plain old gas-bagging. Some of the characters are very unlikeable and although the acting is good, the plot is quite trite and the ending gratuitously out of fantasyland. The characters the actors portray are very shallow and there is little genuineness in the film, whether it’s turns in the plot, depth of characterisation, or even a token tragic ending for one of the couples (in the film they all end up deliriously happy).

It was pleasant enough to watch, but I would not watch it again, nor would I recommend it highly to anyone else to watch, unless it’s on cable and you have 106 minutes to kill. I guess it was a bit like a soap opera, brain junk food – of little nutritive value but moderately toothsome at the time of consumption. Some of the excellent film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels would be better to watch and infinitely more enjoyable.

I wonder if anybody reading this has read the novel from which the movie was made? Perhaps you can tell us about it, whether it was better than the film…


"Sadness flies away on the wings of time." - Jean de La Fontaine

John William Godward (9th August 1861 – 13th December 1922) was an English painter from the end of the Pre-Raphaelite/Neo-Classicist era. He was a protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema but his style of painting fell out of favour with the arrival of painters like Picasso. He committed suicide at the age of 61 and is said to have written in his suicide note that "the world was not big enough" for him and a Picasso. His already estranged family, who had disapproved of him becoming an artist, were ashamed of his suicide and burned his papers. No photographs of Godward are known to survive.

This is his painting “In the Days of Sappho”. Most of his paining are on ancient themes and his style is meticulous, richly coloured and based on an idealised vision of antiquity.

Saturday, 20 December 2008


“Night is the blotting paper for many sorrows.”

Sometimes we try to please too many people at once and all we manage achieve is our own misery. The peacemakers amongst us know this all too well, and the rich store of proverbial wisdom has to say that “he who tries to stop a fight receives the most blows”. Such was the day today and the music encapsulates my mood.

It is Eleni Karaindrou’s “Adagio”. Eleni Karaindrou was born in the mountain village of Teichio in central Greece and grew up in Athens where she studied piano and theory at the Hellenic Conservatorium. From 1969-74 she studied ethnomusicology in Paris and, on returning to Greece, founded the Laboratory for Traditional Instruments at the ORA Cultural Centre. She has since been an active campaigner on behalf of Greece’s musical resources. Karaindrou has a long history of writing for film and theatre; to date, some 18 feature films, 13 plays and 10 television series have featured her music. Although most of her work has been with Greek directors she has also collaborated with Chris Marker, Jules Dassin and Margarethe von Trotta. Eleni Karaindrou has been associated with Greek director Theo Angelopoulos since 1982.

Friday, 19 December 2008


“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.” - Christopher Morley

Every morning as I go to work, I try and walk as much as possible (weather permitting). I usually get off at Flinders St Station and then make my way to work, winding my way through the early morning hustle and bustle across the city. I go through the many alleys and laneways that like a labyrinth criss-cross the CBD. I walk through the maze and every morning I uncover hidden treasures and a charming atmosphere. Melbourne is very much a city of the Victorian era and many of the original 19th century buildings are still very much in evidence. The main city streets are grand and capacious, but behind them and between them, Melbourne's north-south laneways are renowned for their intimacy, sense of intrigue, convenience and visual charm. They weave an eccentric and chaotic pattern across a city better known for its wide streets and regular grid pattern. Many of the laneways have been upgraded with new bluestone paving and street furniture, but they are all a living, wonderful part of my home city.

Usually by 7:00 a.m. as I walk through, there are many cafés, bakeries, eateries and small restaurants that are open for the breakfast trade. I enjoy smelling the aroma of the freshly roasted and ground coffee, the lovely rich smell of toast and fresh bread, the pungency of bacon and eggs and the occasional musty whiff of an open cellar door leading to gloomy depths below street level. The delicious scent of vanilla and hot waffles is a particular favourite of mine as I walk by one the little Belgian eateries on Desgraves St. Melbourne’s coffee culture surrounds one in the laneways and arcades with street cafés and funky coffee shops around every other corner. Expensive art work in shop windows mixes with public art on the streets and further along, great swathes of graffiti on the walls.

The arcades are also another wonderful feature of the city and these range from the magnificent Royal Arcade and Block Arcade (the latter housing the historic Hopetoun Tea Rooms, dating back to 1893, where one may enjoy scrumptious tea and cake) to the more modern shopping arcades filled with every manner of shop. One of the best ways to take in Melbourne’s laneways is to lunch alfresco at one of the many delightful eateries. Hardware Lane, Centre Place, Block Place, The Causeway, Desgraves Street and lanes either side of the Chinatown strip all offer a great outdoor experience. Melbourne rightfully has the reputation of being the home of the best restaurants in Australia and if you are a foodie and visiting Australia, Melbourne should be high on your list of places to see.

Later, in the evening one may have dinner at one these wonderful restaurants and if you would merely drink, tucked away in many of Melbourne’s laneways are also numerous bars. You can find them on Meyers Place, Bennetts Lane, Bullens Lane, Sniders Lane and Market Lane. However, Melbourne’s laneways wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to shop, but the shops in the laneways and alleys are one-of-a-kind. No K-marts and department stores here, just tiny shops that sell anything and everything, stocked with unique items, be they clothes, shoes, gifts, art, or simply zany, crazy objects.

Here is a YouTube video on Melbourne’s laneways, especially so discussing the Public Arts projects involving the city’s laneways.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


“Christmas is not a date. It is a state of mind.” - Mary Ellen Chase

As we approach Christmas, it is interesting to note why December 25th was chosen to mark the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas had its origins in older festivals that marked a very special time of the year: The winter solstice. The word solstice came into Middle English from Old French, from the Latin solstitium. This is a compound of sol- (sun) and -stitium (a stoppage), so the word means “the sun stands still”, reflecting the time when the Sun apparently stops moving north or south and then begins moving in the opposite direction.

In every year, there are two solstices. In the northern hemisphere, the June solstice happens when the Earth’s north pole is tilted its maximum amount towards the Sun. The December solstice happens when the north pole is most tilted away from the Sun. Thus, the June solstice is the day with the most sunshine, and the December solstice has the longest night. The opposite is true in southern hemisphere, with the winter and summer solstices in June and December respectively.

In each year, there is also an equinox in March and another in September. These days are the times when the night is as long as the day. This is reflected in the word's Latin root, aequinoctium, from aequi- (equal) and nox (night). In the northern hemisphere, the vernal (spring) equinox is in March and the autumnal (fall) equinox is in September, with seasons reversed once again in the southern hemisphere.

The time when the Sun is brightest and the days are longest is the summer solstice, near June 21st in the northern hemisphere. Yet the hottest days of summer usually come in July or August, when the days are shorter and the Sun is lower in the sky. Winter’s coldest days also lag the solstice by about two months. Why? When the sunshine maximum comes in June, the landscape and atmosphere are still warming from the winter's chill. Although the Sun begins to lose strength after the solstice, there is still enough heat to continue warming the landscape until the balance shifts about two months later.

In the days after the winter solstice, although the Sun’s heat is returning, it is still not warm enough to keep the landscape from cooling further, especially during the night. It is not until early March that the balance of solar heat and night-time cooling shifts into a warming trend.

The Winter solstice is also known as Yule, and this is a major Wiccan holiday. Many religions have placed the birth of their solar hero gods and saviours on this day: Jesus, Horus, Helios, Dionysus, and Mithras all claim Yule as their birthday. Since this day also represents the point at which the sun begins to wax, it represents rebirth and regeneration in the Wiccan tradition. Aptly, therefore the word of the day is:

Wicca |ˈwikə| noun
The religious cult of modern witchcraft, esp. an initiatory tradition founded in England in the mid 20th century and claiming its origins in pre-Christian pagan religions.
Wiccan |ˈwɪkən| adjective & noun
ORIGIN representing Old English wicca [witch.]


“Human beings love company even if it is only that of a small burning candle.” - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

This morning as I was walking to work I saw a street woman asleep on a bench. Her clothes were torn and dirty and she too looked as though she had not washed for many days. Her hair was unkempt and grey, tangled in heaps around her head, and although her face was worn and prematurely aged, I could tell it had once been beautiful. I could think of a hundred reasons why she had ended up in this state with all her belongings in a couple of bags and wearing all the clothes she possessed. Somehow, the reasons did not matter, what mattered was her solitary state in amongst the three million people of this city. Nobody to worry about her, none to talk to her, not a single person out there to love her? How does our modern society alienate some people like this? And yet, even the rest of us, with friends, family, loved ones, how often is it that we feel alone?


I wear my solitude like an old shirt,
Faded, almost threadbare,
But still possessing the comfort
Born of long habit.

I taste my solitary ways like a dragée,
Whose sugar coating beguiles
Unwary taste buds, till the
Enclosed almond turns bitter.

Alone, I hear my heart beating
Amplified like raindrops on tin roof,
Or an expert solo drummer,
Executing a cadenza.

My singularity is perfume of violets,
Intense and overwhelming;
But so soon evanescent:
The scented becoming scentless.

Why is loneliness such a dreadful
And unwelcome guest, when
For so long, solitude has been one’s
Most faithful companion?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


“Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” – George Scialabba

It is Arthur C. Clarke’s birthday today and he was born in 1917. He died in March this year at the age of 90 years after a long battle with post-polio syndrome. He was one the most famous of science fiction writers whose pragmatism and cool logic could be seen in even his most fanciful works. He denigrated religion as “a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species” leaving written instructions that his funeral be completely secular. “Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral,” he wrote.

As well as writing science fiction, Clarke was a visionary who wrote more than 100 books on space, science and the future. The 1968 story “2001: A Space Odyssey” (written both as a novel and screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick – see yesterday’s blog), was a frightening prophecy of artificial intelligence run amuck and it shot him into international fame. When Clarke and Kubrick got together to develop a movie about space, they looked for inspiration to several of Clarke’s shorter pieces. As work progressed on the screenplay, Clarke also wrote a novel of the story. He followed it up with “2010,” “2061,” and “3001: The Final Odyssey.” “2010” was made into a film sequel. In 1969 Clarke was the co-announcer in American television’s coverage of the moon landing, making him an instantly recognisable face across the globe.

Clarke is credited with the concept of communications satellites in 1945, decades before they became a reality. Geosynchronous orbits, which keep satellites in a fixed position relative to the ground, are called Clarke orbits. His nonfiction volumes on space travel and his explorations of the Great Barrier Reef and Indian Ocean earned him respect in the world of science, and in 1976 he became an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

His last novel, “The Last Theorem” was co-written with Frederik Pohl, another famous sci-fi author) and is the swan-song in a long and distinguished list of brilliant creativity: Some of his best-known books are “Childhood’s End” (1953); “The City and The Stars” (1956); “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1967); “Rendezvous with Rama” (1973); “Imperial Earth” (1975); and “The Songs of Distant Earth” (1986). Clarke's legacy in the movies may well continue after his death, with a film adaptation of “Rendezvous with Rama” having been in development for years, with actor Morgan Freeman as producer and star.

Real-life space exploration of space followed in the wake of Clarke’s fiction. After the first moon landing in 1969 (an event predicted by Clarke decades earlier) NASA Administrator Tom Paine said in an inscription to the writer that he “provided the essential intellectual drive that led us to the moon”. Clarke's 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise” helped spark the real-world efforts to build a space elevator from Earth to orbit. The idea is still being pursued, even though its realisation may still be decades away.

Clarke was born in Minehead, western England, the son of a farmer, Arthur Charles Clark became addicted to science fiction after buying his first copies of the pulp magazine “Amazing Stories” at Woolworth’s. He read English writers H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon and began writing for his school magazine in his teens. Clarke went to work as a clerk in Her Majesty’s Exchequer and Audit Department in London, where he joined the British Interplanetary Society and wrote his first short stories and scientific articles on space travel. It was not until after World War II that Clarke received a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College in London.

Serving in the wartime Royal Air Force, he wrote a 1945 memo about the possibility of using satellites to revolutionize communications. Clarke later sent it to a publication called Wireless World, which almost rejected it as too far-fetched. He moved to Sri Lanka in 1956. In an interview with The Associated Press, Clarke said he did not regret having never traveled to space himself, though he arranged to have DNA from his hair sent into orbit. “One day, some super civilization may encounter this relic from the vanished species and I may exist in another time” he said. Clarke enclosed with his DNA, a handwritten note that read “Farewell, my clone”.

“Rendezvous with Rama” is one of my favourite of Clarke’s books. It is set in the 22nd century, the story involves a forty-kilometer-long cylindrical alien starship that enters Earth’s solar system and is hurtling to the sun. The story is told from the point of view of a group of human explorers, who intercept the ship in an attempt to unlock its mysteries. I first read the book when I was a young and impressionable high school student and then again more recently. It is a book full of solid science and is essentially the blueprint for a starship that can be built by earthlings for travel in interstellar space.

Monday, 15 December 2008


“The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.” - Chinese Proverb

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) again recently and was surprised at how little my appreciation of this film had changed over the years. One may have expected it to be dated and look “clunky”, however, as a vision of the future it retains a certain freshness, even though the high technology depicted is slightly antiquated. Nevertheless the film is visually rich and makes for rewarding viewing even on an abstract level, independent of the story. I was watching it rather amused as it was often described as the ultimate movie to watch on a “drug trip” – it is certainly one that stretches time and through images and music can create a heightened state during a drug-induced euphoria. Kubrick takes a great risk in attempting to capture beauty on film – whether this is an arid African landscape, a moonscape, deepest space or a depiction of the falling through a time/space discontinuity. The film is slow and builds up gradually to the climax, which is interrupted by an almost irrelevant episode of the likes of a psychological thriller.

The film has as its theme the evolution of mankind. Several million years ago some hominid apes live an animal-like existence until they encounter a rectangular black monolith that causes them to evolve into the next stage of development. Closer to the present time, the same type of mysterious monolith is discovered buried under the surface of the moon. This is the stimulus for the next stage of human development involving interplanetary travel and dependence on computers. The middle part of the film involving the mission to Jupiter and the interaction of one of the spacemen, Dave, with Hal the villainous computer is the main recognizable cinematic “plot” of the movie. It is a sparse story but directed with masterly aplomb by Kubrick. The last part of the movie concerns the interaction of Dave with yet another black monolith that heralds the next stage of human development – the space child.

The film is ground-breaking in several important cinematic ways. Its use of slowly building climaxes (which may irritate many). The use of classical music in some beautiful image sequences that serve no purpose except to cajole us into a sense of cultural appreciation of the art of movie-making. The overlapping stories linked by the common monolithic theme. The almost Hitchcokian middle part of man versus machine. And the final self-indulgent psychedelic trip that heralds the postlude of a conclusion to the film that may be misunderstood by many. The mystery surrounding the monoliths is never resolved in the film, but that an alien intelligence is responsible for them is indisputable. This contribute to the overall awe-inspiring nature of the film and contributes to the constant sense of apprehension that mounts to terror as the film winds to a close.

This is the science fiction film par excellence. A great achievement of a great director, perhaps his greatest film. When one thinks of what was being made Hollywood in 1968, one is amazed by the foresight and vision of Kubrick, truly one of the great directors.

Sunday, 14 December 2008


“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.” - Michael Servetus

We live in interesting times and that reminds me of the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”… Interesting because of the worldwide upheavals, economies in crisis, wars, terrorism, massive population shifts, climate change, social inequity, crumbling governments, people running amuck. Yet, ours are not the only interesting times, the history books are full of similar epochs with numerous crises and awful turmoil. It’s just that I would have thought humanity had learnt a little form past mistakes and a simple reading of history would have had a sobering effect. But who bothers to read history anymore?

The painting for this Sunday is Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Temptation of St Anthony”, a work full of terror and apprehension. Illustrative perhaps of some past “interesting times” or prophetic of the present ones.

Bosch, Hieronymus also known as Joen or Jeroen van Aken was born about 1450, in 's-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc) in the Netherlands and died in 1516. The painting above was painted around 1505-1506 and is oil on panel, 131.5 x 53 cm (central panel), 131.5 x 53 cm (side panels, each). It now hangs in Lisbon, in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

The complete triptych depicts the Flight and Failure of St Anthony (left wing), Temptation of St Anthony (central panel) and St Anthony in Meditation (right wing). In the works of northern masters, the realistic landscapes of Italian painters are transformed into fantasy-scapes in which anthropomorphic forms mix with imaginary ones. These often accompany the usual Christian motifs, like a temptation of Saint Anthony, representing a weird mixture of legend and pure imagination. Bosch was remarkable in his choice of subject matter that allowed him to indulge his bizarre sense of the grotesque and the fantastic.

Saturday, 13 December 2008


“Mine is the night, with all her stars.” - Edward Young

For Song Saturday, a song by Italian Singer/Songwriter Franco Battiato. A little reminiscent of a space opera, the lyrics suggest a science fiction scenario where interstellar travel has just become possible and humanity is beginning to colonise deep space. Although upbeat and hopeful, this song has a mixture of curious unease and a little melancholy as well. One is also intrigued with the poor captain of the third verse who will be exiled for unknown reasons…

Milky Way

We awoke even before dawn broke,
Ready to board an artificial satellite,
That would take us quickly
To the gates of Sirius
Where an experimental group
Was preparing itself for a long voyage.

We, from the neighbourhood of the Little Bear,
Are preparing to conquer interstellar space;
And we dress in light grey,
So as not to get lost.
We follow certain diagonal routes
In the Milky Way…

A captain of the central agency
Educated to exhaustion
Will quickly come to be exiled…
I prepared myself for the long voyage.
In which one may lose oneself.
We follow certain diagonal routes
In the Milky Way…

Friday, 12 December 2008


“To change one's life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” - William James

One of the duties that I have to attend to as the Festive Season draws closer is to host various Christmas parties and formal dinners that we organise in order to thank our staff for their contributions to our organisation during the past year. Today I have been in Brisbane, mainly in meetings all day and then this afternoon the final College Council meeting for the year. This was quite a large meeting with much business and it went on for over two hours. At the end of it I was quite out of breath and sounding a little hoarse as I had done much talking. This meeting was followed by a dinner in one of Brisbane’s fine restaurants at the Emporium Centre close to the City, adjacent to the new Emporium Hotel in Fortitude Valley.

The restaurant we went to was “Buzz” which is a comfortable, unpretentious, almost café-style restaurant. It nevertheless has class and a quiet appeal. The restaurant serves contemporary Australian food where the multicultural influences that have shaped Australia mix with modern touches and classic dishes from various parts of the world presented in a fresh way.

There were about a dozen of us and the service was rapid, with good attention to detail and staffed by experienced and discreet waiters. The décor and ambience were relaxed and sophisticated, with no pretentious overtones. The restaurant was busy enough but not overcrowded or noisy and we sat outside in the gloriously balmy evening under the almost full moon.

We sampled all three courses on offer and everyone was very pleased with the quality of the food. I was particularly pleased with my choices: For entrée I chose the porcini mushroom arancini, accompanied by exotic mushrooms and watercress velouté. The arancini were slightly overcooked, but they tasted delicious. The wild mushrooms, especially, were very good. For my main course I had the eye fillet steak, truffled mash, asparagus, semi-dried tomatoes with raisin and onion jam. I always have my meat well done and this can often result in a slightly dry portion. However, this was the best well-done eye fillet that I have had for a long time. The mashed potatoes were delicious and the asparagus were cooked to perfection. I wasn’t too impressed with the raisin and onion jam, but it was mainly because I like my sweets served separately to my main courses. The dessert was baba au rhum with poached pear and citrus cream and fresh strawberries, a little dry, but otherwise very tasty. The strawberries were ripe and sweet, a perfect counterfoil to the rich dough of the baba.

We had the Toolangi Reserve Chardonnay for the Yarra Valley in Victoria with our entrées and the Firegully Cabernet Merlot from Margaret River in Western Australia with our main course, both wines being excellent. At $90 per person, we found the meal and service quite good to excellent.

The highlight of the meal was the conversation with cultured, educated people where the topics varied from current affairs, politics and educational matters to travel, family, art, music, theatre and topics pertaining to our work (of course!). The convivial atmosphere of the end of year celebration was tinged with a little sadness for me. This always seems to temper my sentiments on such occasions and no matter how a good time I have there is always a sweet melancholy in the background that helps to make the happy occasion even more vivid, just as in the brightest most sunlit days of summer, the shadows seem to lend a special brilliance to the highlights. I can’t exactly explain it, or maybe I could but don’t want to talk about it.

In any case the evening was most enjoyable and was a happy and successful conclusion to a year’s of hard work. A small price to pay in order to express our gratitude to these people in the community and sister tertiary institutions that give up their time in order to sit in our Council meetings and contribute to the good governance of our College.

Enjoy the weekend! Do it now, utilise fully the essence of the good inherent in your life; the future is promised to none.

Thursday, 11 December 2008


“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.” - William Shakespeare

For Word Thursday today:

lunatic |ˈloōnəˌtik| noun
A mentally ill person (not in technical use).
• An extremely foolish or eccentric person: This lunatic just accelerated out of the side of the road.
mentally ill (not in technical use).
• Extremely foolish, eccentric, or absurd: He would be asked to acquiesce in some lunatic scheme.
ORIGIN Middle English: From Old French lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna ‘moon’ (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity).

The full moon shines outside the window tonight and its silvery sharp arrows penetrate through layers of curtain to impale themselves on flooring, bedding, hapless limbs that are in the way. Luna, the moon goddess, a manifestation of Diana the virgin huntress. Luna lent her name to the ancient belief in the power of the Moon to make us mad. Modern studies have associated full Moons with everything from extra insanity to traffic accidents. But the connections have been thin. Perhaps the most well-founded human relationship to the lunar cycle is the menstrual cycle of many women. Some studies have found weak associations to increased aggression, unintentional poisonings and absenteeism. But other studies have contradicted these findings.

In recent investigations looking at animal aggressiveness, one study showed that animal bites were found to have sent twice as many British people to the emergency room during full Moons compared with other days. But the other study, in Australia, found that dogs can be pretty nasty on any given day irrespective of the phase of the moon. Both studies were published in a recent issue of the British Medical Journal. So whom do we believe?

The answer may have something to do with climate, weather and human activity as a result of the influence of the full moon on people’s mind. In Britain the weather is less clement than in Australia, and people are confined at home more (and hence safe from dog bites). In Australia, the weather is kinder and people tend to lead more outdoor lives, full moon or not (and hence more exposed to dog bites). As the full moon tends to attract more people outside, and in Britain they tend to go out more during the full moon nights compared to the rest of the time, and hence they run a greater risk to be bitten around the full moon night. In Australia people go out more, interact with dogs more on any night and hence get bitten on any night, whether the moon is full or not.

I think that there may be an element of truth in the moon-lunacy connection. If the moon is powerful enough an influence to cause tides of the earth’s oceans, surely it must have some influence on the watery substance of our own bodies. There are many things that happen around us and in our own bodies that we still have no explanation for and the influence of the moon on our bodies and minds is one of these. Until we know, here are some known facts about the moon:

  • The moon is the only natural satellite of the Earth.
  • It revolves around our planet from West to East at a mean distance of about 384,400 kilometres (239,900 miles).
  • The Moon is less than one third the size of the Earth.
  • It has a diameter of only about 3,476 km (2,160 mi) at its equator.
  • It is only 1/81 as massive as the Earth and has a density of roughly 3.34 grams per cubic centimetre as opposed to 5.52 for the Earth.
  • The moon shines by reflected sunlight, but its albedo (the fraction of light received that is reflected) is only 0.073.
  • Its brightness varies through its cycle of phases primarily because of the roughness of its surface and the resultant variable amount of shadow.
  • The Moon rotates about its own axis in 29.5 days, which is identical to the time it takes to complete its orbit around the earth. As a result the moon always presents nearly the same face to the Earth.
  • On July 20th, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin on the desolate lunar plain known as the Sea of Tranquillity.
  • The last U.S. mission was in December 1972.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

The events in Athens still prey on my mind and they join other similar acts of violence and desperation around the globe that float in my brain like vultures. Humanity is becoming inhuman and we rush to our own destruction, like moths around a flame. My poem today was inspired by these fiery visions and is not a happy one…

And then the beast awakens, stirs,
It shakes and bellows loud,
Yelps, cries, like a hundred curs;
And even if shielded by a shroud,
Its eyes still burn with fury bright.

The beast awakens and it crushes
All resistance; logic is slain.
Death in its wake; blood gushes,
Plague, famine, panic, bane
Will cause the loss of light.

Black scrawny birds of sorrow fly,
And shrieks of misery resound;
The beast is quick, draws nigh
With claws clutched all around
A bloody sword that’s black as night.

Its footsteps leave a wake of fire,
Pain, fear, agony, tears, doom.
Repentance too late, the hour dire,
The sun has died, all is a-gloom;
The earth has sickened in its plight.

The beast moves fast, destroys,
Its purpose deadly as was prophesied;
Chasms gape open, an infernal noise,
As earth is gashed, as cities subside,
And terror reigns wedded with fright.

The beast within us stirs, it wakes,
And years of calmness, reason, die.
The demon that’s inside of us, shakes,
Our civilised existence to defy.

How easy in a moment’s fury to annihilate,
What took a century or two to build.
We kill the angels, holy things do desecrate
All that is innocent and pure, is killed.

Fire, sulphur, tar, mire, brimstone, blight,
We’re tortured by the demons that we liberate.
Wisdom wiped out, light gives way to night,
Apocalypse comes from within, such is our fate.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


“The keenest sorrow is to recognise ourselves as the sole cause of all our adversities.” – Sophocles

It is with horror and disgust that I watch the news from Athens these past few days. During the previous couple of years, there has been an ever-increasing accumulation of explosives in the tinder box that is Greece: A volatile political situation, high unemployment, chronic disgruntlement with social and economic policies, inflation, high prices, low salaries, influx of illegal immigrants, unchecked crime, numerous scandals in government and church, the world economic crisis… The spark that set off the explosion of the recent riots was the killing of a 16-year-old boy by a policeman last Saturday in Athens. Alexandros Grigoropoulos was fatally shot by a police officer in Athens’ Exarchia district close to the Athens Polytechnic University after hurling stones at police at night. How the shooting occurred is unclear, but the two officers involved have been arrested; one has been charged with murder and the other as an accomplice. A coroner’s report shows that the boy was shot in the chest. The officers claim that the bullet ricocheted before hitting the boy.

The episode was the catalyst for widespread rioting, not only in Athens, but in most major cities around the country. Gangs of youths smashed their way through central Athens and Thessaloniki on Sunday and Monday. Shops, banks, apartment buildings and even luxury hotels had their windows smashed and burned in a night of anarchy and lawlessness as youths fought running battles with riot police. In Crete, Larissa, Chios, other towns, similar violent protests occurred. The increasingly unpopular Karamanlis government has been criticised as being a weak and powerless observer in these vicious demonstrations. Burning barricades, flames and clouds of smoke were mixing with tear gas used by police. Molotov cocktails joined flying stones and debris as they converted the centre of Athens into a battle zone.

The news relayed live and non-stop by the Greek satellite TV channel have created shock waves around the world amongst all ranks of the Greek diaspora. No doubt, this contributed to demonstrators entering and taking over the London and Berlin Greek embassies. They raised banners of support and the black-and-red anarchist flag. Most rational and civilised people whether Greeks or not abhor such acts of unrestrained fury and revolt. There is little public support for street violence or wanton destruction of property amongst Greeks, but within the Greek psyche there is a tolerance for demonstrations, and the right to protest is held in high esteem.

Anarchists are blamed for late-night fire-bombings of targets such as banks and diplomatic vehicles, which occur regularly in Athens, but these attacks rarely cause injuries. The anarchist movement traces its roots largely in the resistance to Greece’s 1967-74 military dictatorship and the small groups of “known-unknowns”, as they are called since they sport balaclavas, are behind most violent protests. The anarchists tend to support anti-capitalist and antiestablishment activities, and have long-running battles with police, which represents for them everything that they hate.

In the wake of the riots, over 30 police officers and riot police members have been injured. Millions of euros of damage has been done. Greece’s reputation as a stable democratic country has been further sullied. The message that is getting through to the international community is that it is a country of barbaric savages that respect no law, no common human decency, no code of civilised society. The images that have been transmitted to the word’s TV screens are full of savage, mindless acts of mass hysterics. These are no children of Socrates or Plato, but rather bands of animals that are bent on mindless destruction and brutishness. The episodes of genuine demonstrations over a heinous act have been overshadowed by acts even more vicious. Blatant disregard for law and order, wholesale destruction and damage to property, looting and violence for the sake of violence.

It is heart-breaking to see what was once a beautiful, peaceful city (and yes, maybe I am stretching it, as I refer to the Athens of my childhood of the early ‘60s) now becoming a shambles. A burnt out shell of a once great civilisation. A shadow of its former substance. What more can I say? Perhaps a song can sum up my feelings:

Αθήνα (1978)

(Χρήστου Γκάρτζου, Σώτιας Τσώτου)

Ξέρω μια πόλη που η άσφαλτος καίει
Και δέντρου σκιά δεν θα βρεις…
Μεγάλη ιστόρια, προγόνοι σπουδαίοι,
Λυχνάρι και τάφος της γης.

Θυμίζεις Αθήνα γυναικα που κλαίει
Γιατί δεν την θέλει κανείς.
Αθήνα, Αθήνα, πεθαίνω μαζί σου,
Πεθαίνεις μαζί μου κι εσύ.

Ξέρω μια πόλη στη νεά Σαχάρα
Μια έρημο όλο μπετόν
Οι ξένοι στόλοι, λαθραία τσιγάρα,
Παιδιά που δεν ξέρουν κρυφτό.

Θυμίζεις Αθήνα γυναικα που κλαίει
Γιατί δεν την θέλει κανείς.
Αθήνα, Αθήνα, πεθαίνω μαζί σου,
Πεθαίνεις μαζί μου κι εσύ.

Ξέρω μια πόλη στη γη της αβύσσου,
Κουρσάρων κι ανέμων νησί.
Στης Πλάκας τους δρόμους
Πουλάς το κορμί σου για ένα ποτήρι κρασί.

Θυμίζεις Αθήνα γυναικα που κλαίει
Γιατί δεν την θέλει κανείς.
Αθήνα, Αθήνα, πεθαίνω μαζί σου,
Πεθαίνεις μαζί μου κι εσύ.

Athens (1978)
(Music: Christos Gartzos; Lyrics: Sotia Tsotou)

I know a city where the asphalt burns,
Where you won’t find a tree to shade you.
Great history, even greater ancestors,
Light of the world, grave of the world.

Athens, you remind me of a woman crying
Because nobody desires her;
Athens, oh Athens, I die with you,
You die with me too.

I know a city in the new Sahara,
A desert made of concrete.
Foreign fleets anchor there, contraband cigarettes,
Children who do not know how to play hide-and-seek.

Athens, you remind me of a woman crying
Because nobody desires her;
Athens, oh Athens, I die with you,
You die with me too.

I know a city in the country of the abyss,
An island home to pirates and wild winds.
In Plaka’s neighbourhoods
You sell your body for a glass full of wine…

Athens, you remind me of a woman crying
Because nobody desires her;
Athens, oh Athens, I die with you,
You die with me too.