Guest blogger Joe Alessi writes from the road as he plays Albert in the Australian tour of Brief Encounter.
We are Kneehigh and i've been a very naughty boy.
I realise that Blog 9 has been a long time coming but the simple, plain, unashamed truth of it is that I’ve been having too good a time in Melbourne. People said we were going to enjoy Melbourne and they were right. But my enjoyment has been a teensy bit sullied by the fact that I’d got behind on my bloggage. In my gluttonous, hedonistic bacchanalian revelry, I was aware that wherever I was, be it a restaurant, bar, cafe, club, gig or theatre, there was a small child-like figure in the corner of the room, in a hooded red anorak, its face obscured, carrying my laptop under it's arm and pointing an accusatory finger at me...
So, to begin with, goodbyes. I think it's only natural as a traveller to have an affinity with the first port of call you arrive at and so it was with Adelaide, a city that welcomed us warmly via Australia Arts Project and State Theatre who welcomed us at the airport with warm smiles and open arms. The drive in the minibus into Adelaide was terrifically exciting only because we'd spent nearly twenty hours cooped up inside a pressurised tin can but also because we were taking in the 'otherness' of another country, our noses pressed against the windows: another city, with its new smells, sights and sounds, its weather, its wide roads, its different car registration plates, different suburban architecture with strange, unfamiliar street signs, buildings and infrastructure. If you would allow the inner anorak in me to speak for a second, it's always fascinated me how cities develop, from origin to present day: the decisions made and arrived at that will ultimately shape it, from the big things like civic buildings, sanitation and public parks to the seemingly small but nonetheless important things like, for example, the design of the humble street sign: its colour, shape, size, font; fastened to the wall or on posts? The traffic lights: on poles like in the UK or hanging from cables in the middle of the road like in the US? The lamp posts: size and design for example. To what kind of pavements should be used? Concrete or slabs? All the small mundanities of a city that collectively define it.
Adelaide took us by the hand and said "Welcome! Come with me, there're a lot of things you'll recognise from back home but there's so much more that you won't but I think you will love it!" And of course we did. (I refer you to blogs 1 to 8) So it was with a little sadness that we packed our bags after four weeks and met up in the lobby of our hotel to catch the same minibus back to the airport for our week in Canberra.
Canberra, oh, Canberra, where do I start? Most Australians I’d met in the UK prior to leaving asked why on Earth were we going to Canberra? Same with a lot of people in Adelaide, when we mentioned we were going to perform in Canberra, a look of confusion and horror came over their faces, "Why?"
In the spirit of optimism, adventure and not wishing to dwell on the negative, coupled with the fact we were being paid to be here, I was determined, like a truffle pig to schnuffle out Canberra's good points and I’m happy to report that there were many. Admittedly, the city itself, in its physical form is rather ugly, a cross between Milton Keynes and post-war Plymouth. As a modern city, it's meant to be celebrating it's centenary but apart from the Old Parliament house, I struggled to find a building older than fifty.
It was decided that Canberra would be Australia's capital, a decision made principally because Sydney and Melbourne had been squabbling between themselves for years over which should be the capital, so the then small town of Canberra was chosen as a compromise due to it being, geographically in between Sydney and Melbourne.
Walter Burley Griffin & Marion Mahony Griffin a husband and wife team of architects from Chicago had won the contract to design it. Rather than the traditional grid system that many city designers had opted for, the Griffins decided to think 'out of the grid' and decided to base the city around circles, triangles, concentric hexagons & octagons, which would explain why, even after a week there I was still getting lost on the ten minute walk from the apartment to the theatre. Because Canberra is the capital city, naturally, parliament is based there, so by default it has a lot of politicians and we all know that politicians love/need a fine gravy train to jump on, so the city has more than a few good restaurants to cater for them and the civil servants. I think I had the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever tasted there, a restaurant called Ipho (no website) I found the only street (Lonsdale St) that looked after Canberra's hipsters which had some lovely independent shops and great coffee/breakfast cafes, Elk and Pea and Lonsdale Street Roasters being two of them
But on reflection, I think the best thing going for Canberra are its galleries and museums which are nonpareil. We visited the National Museum of Australia, The National Portrait, Questacon and best of all the War Memorial (which doubles as the war museum) which sits at the end of a very long and very wide road called ANZAC Parade (ANZAC standing for 'Australia New Zealand Army Corps'), the start of which is from Parliament House. Due to its massive width, it accommodates a pavement and flower beds all along the middle of it. Standing in the middle of the road is a very impressive sight with Parliament House at one end and The War Memorial at the other, with Mount Ainslee behind it. Leading up to it on either side of the road are various smaller memorials commemorating all the conflicts Australia and New Zealand have been involved in, from Gallipoli to present day Afghanistan. (New Zealand fought alongside Australia during the 1st and 2nd World Wars only)
The most surprising of these monuments was the memorial to the conflict in Vietnam in the 1960's, I had no idea Australia was involved. Harold Holt, who was the Prime Minister at the time backed the USA (some argue he had his arm twisted by the US as Vietnam is practically in Australia's backyard) his famous quote being: "All the way with LBJ!" His death is shrouded in controversy and mystery, a very keen and strong swimmer, he disappeared, presumed drowned whilst swimming in the ocean. Neither his body or his swimsuit was ever found, some conspiracy theorists suggest he was kidnapped by a Communist submarine.
One of the most moving memorials is for the conflict in the Gallipoli Peninsula which now forms part of modern Turkey, where many, many thousands of both ANZAC and Ottoman soldiers lost their lives. Because of the huge loss of life on both sides, a very strong bond formed between Turkey and Australia which remains to this day. There is a plaque on the memorial with a moving tribute to the ANZACs killed at Gallipoli from the founder of modern Turkey, who was an officer at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk which reads:
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
Towards the end of the week Dave Brown and myself decided to climb up Mount Ainslee which lies directly behind The War Memorial. It stands at 2733 feet.
We weren't particularly worried about the height as we both suffer with a touch of the vertigos, because the mountain itself is also a nature reserve and there is a very benign path leading right up to the summit. The weather couldn't have been more clement: blue skies and a cooling breeze. The flora and fauna leading up to the summit was spectacular, more birds we'd never seen before or whose song we'd never heard, yet another tree that defied identification by us Northern Hemispherers (have I told you about the plug hole theory..?) and more unusual insects that had me running for a rock to climb on, not to mention the air which felt so pure and clean, with each deep breath one felt clean inside. On reaching the summit, which was very conveniently built up with concrete viewing platforms and benches, all supporting a giant telecommunications tower, one could see Canberra in its entirety, lying in a flat plain surrounded by stunning scenery, the great Brindabella Ranges and the Black Mountains. It really looks like it's in the middle of nowhere..
Come Sunday and off to the airport we went to catch a flight to Melbourne. Now... Melbourne... Actually, let's leave Melbourne for the next blog. I promise it won't take as long this time.
Love light peace and respect