Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sydney: at last it can be told

[Warning: contains ranting.]

We took the bus to Sydney. I figured it would be me, Adrienne, and a couple of old-age pensioners, and that would be it. I was wrong. The bus was packed. Maybe a story remains to be told: three young children, two in school uniforms, and their mother bought tickets while we were waiting. “We’re going on a holiday”, one of them said. “Mummy was in such a hurry that she didn’t even have time to pack any clothes.” And sure enough, there were no bags of any sort, even school bags. They caught the bus with us, and immediately vanished when we arrived at Central Station, in Sydney. I wonder where they are now.

Sydney. We walked to our hotel, on the edge of Hyde Park and near the top end of Oxford Street, and immediately had a sense, which you just don’t get in Canberra, of the huge waves of people that move into, out of, and around, the centre of the city at the start and end of a working day. I find it overwhelming. It takes me a couple of days to in any way adjust to the pace of the place. But this time, after a stay of four days and doing a sort of reverse commute, out of the city each morning and back into the city each afternoon, I finally felt back within my comfort zone.

Observation: as the world teeters, perhaps, on the crumbling edge of climate change of such magnitude that large numbers of species, including perhaps our own, are in immediate danger of extinction, it strikes me as strange, or perhaps it is just further evidence of the irreversible nature of this process and the impossible struggle “western” man would have to take even small steps to curb his rapacious destructiveness, that we now see, in a modern, “enlightened” city like Sydney, an astounding, overwhelming, and fundamentally new pattern of consumption of (a) bottled water and (b) take-away coffee. Both of these things seem to drive the city. We even saw, to our continuing amazement, groups of uniformed boys walking to school sucking on take-away coffee containers. Say what? I’m not so far away from being a schoolboy (okay, yes I am), and I am sure that coffee was one of the furthest things from any of our minds in those days. Alcohol, maybe. Drugs, maybe. Girls, certainly. But, coffee? We have, clearly, gone mad. J G Ballard was right all along. It’s not enough, I don’t think, to rely on the fact (if fact it be) of the recyclability of all these disposable containers. For a start, I would be sceptical of how many are in fact put out for recycling. My concern is, why these things? Why so many? Why now? Can we really be so stupid, so unaware? Maybe we are just selfish. In which case we will get what is coming to us. And you don’t need to be a person of religion to see this. [Speaking of which, someone I know said to me that someone they know said that she “doesn’t believe in global warming”. This, apparently, is a person of some intelligence, a person in the media, and they don’t “believe” in global warming. You might as well say you don’t “believe” in the laws of physics: when Ballard’s “The Drought” and “The Drowned World” combine into the final narrative of humankind, she will still go down with the rest of us. “Believe”. Huh.]

But we did have fun. Lots of fun. And we did consume (but not take-away coffee or bottled water). We found Gleebooks, which has the best children’s section I have ever seen; knowledgeable, too. They even had a Moomin book we didn’t know of, and we know a lot about Moomin books. We marvelled, as we always do, at Sydney’s physical beauty and stunning geography, its lushness. We fantasised about the sign we saw twice each day on our trips to and from the workshop we were there to attend, which invited us to “ALIGHT HERE FOR BEAUTIFUL BALLS HEAD”. Maybe next time.

We ate at Wagamama. Twice. (Ten years to the month since we previously dined at Wagamama, in London.)

We discovered Kinokuniya bookshop, which had an extraordinary range of graphic novels and suchlike. It even had Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”, although I baulked at the price and anyway I’m not quite sure whether I’m quite ready to go there yet.

Bookshops being both the theme and the improvisation, we also managed a visit to Aerial and two visits to Berkelouws. The latter, we had been tipped to, has a lovely little cafe whence one can gaze down at the shenanigans along Oxford Street, and count the number of Mercedes Benzes driving past.

The four-day autism workshop which was the purpose of our trip (although we also felt no guilt about having a good time while the kids were farmed out to Canberra friends and neighbours) was held at a conference centre situated up an industrial side lane at Crow’s Nest. As a child I often wondered what would be at Crow’s Nest (well, obviously it would involve pirates), a name which inevitably appeared as the postal address at the bottom of those ads on the back pages of comic books, the ones that tried to sell you (and tended to succeed in my case) bags of stamps from the world over (but especially, it seemed, from countries like “Magyar Posta” and “CCCP”, they all sounded pretty exotic, really, to a boy from Fish Creek). We also, coincidentally, saw an ad on SBS one night, back in our hotel room, which carried a Crow’s Nest postal address. That must be some post office.

Record shopping? I actually ran out of steam after some hard days’ workshopping, but I did drop into Birdland Records, located upstairs somewhere on Pitt Street adjacent to a monorail station, where I had hoped to find some Zorn, and in fact found in the vicinity of 250 Zorn and related CDs, many of which I would, in an ideal world, “need”, but only three of which I could take home. It was a not-quite-arbitrary choice: the Masada pieces are what I keep coming back to, and it was nice to find two of the 50th-birthday discs, by the Masada String Trio and the wickedly awesome (or awesomely wicked) Electric Masada “downtown supergroup”, along with another of the live quartet recordings, this one a two-disc set recorded in Taipei, of all places. It is bound not to have the intensity of “Tonic 2001” but perhaps given the beatnik obscurity of the venue I am expecting, and anticipating, a good amount of testing and experimentation. I may, of course, be disappointed. [Postscript: initially disappointed by the sound quality, most un-Zorn-like, but once you get through that barrier you can see why it had to be released: they sound unusually relaxed and playful, taking familiar Masada pieces in unexpected directions and bringing some less commonly played pieces out for an airing.]

The bus back to Canberra was equally packed, and was also half an hour late on account of Sydney Friday peak-hour traffic, so the boys, although they were (and in Jules’s case almost apoplectically) excited to see us, were also pretty damn tired and happy just to climb into their own beds (but not without demanding to see what we had brought back for them first).

And we also learned a lot, although I found the entire “conference lifestyle” experience a bit, well, quite, actually, disconcerting, like being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world, even from the elements. Which I suppose is the point. (Those who stayed at the “recommended accommodation” nearby, and who were bussed to and from the workshop each day, must have found it even more surreal; at least we were able to suffuse ourselves into the life of the city during the after hours.) But I am glad to have had the experience, and to have done what we did. We met a lot of nice people from all over Australia, all of whom share the common bond (and it is incredibly strong, actually) of having to live with a child with autism. We are very optimistic that some good will come from the experience. Either that or we will immediately fall back into our bad, counter-productive habits and self-imposed isolation ...