Perth 7

I was reading a newspaper rant the other day about the cultural vacuum in Perth.   That’s not been our experience.   Every single night there’s something going on; I feel guilty we can’t get to more.

A couple of weeks ago we went to Perth’s beautiful and acoustically superb Concert Hall for something different.   A musical scholar featured on ABC radio’s classical programs was conducting the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Debussy’s “La Mer.”  But it wasn’t just a performance; he deconstructed the piece as he went along.  He explained to us exactly what was happening, which instruments Debussy used and why.  He isolated sections of the orchestra to demonstrate; then he conducted the movement with the full orchestra.  It was fascinating.  I’ve always liked Debussy’s music and I thought I knew “La Mer” but it was amazing how much more I could hear now, how much better I understood what was going on.  The performance was sold out, but we got tickets at the last minute when someone canceled.  They were in the front row, so we were looking up at the first violinist!   It was almost like being part of the orchestra.

Last week we went to see a new play by an Australian author, a co-production of the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Black Swan State Theatre Company here in Western Australia.  Again, we picked up the tickets at the last minute when someone canceled, and again we were in the front row!   “The Swimming Club” is about a group of friends who twenty-five years ago worked for one glorious summer at a hotel on a Greek island.  A lot is going on their various lives and they decide to go back for a reunion, perhaps hoping to rediscover the magic.  Beautifully written, cleverly staged, and briskly performed by a talented cast.  Great evening of theatre.

Virtually everything we want to do is within walking distance, living as we do in the central business district of Perth.  We feel very fortunate.

Seated in the front row, I was glad I’d worn a jacket and tie to the play, but the truth is, people dress very casually in Perth.  At least the guys do.  It’s common to see couples where the girl is carefully made up and dressed to kill, but the guy she’s with looks like he picked up whatever was on the floor and threw it on – a tee shirt and jeans, or a short-sleeved shirt and baggy pants, scuffed shoes.  Strikingly incongruous.

I can’t stand any more to look at what I see in the mirror when I turn sideways, so I’ve signed with a personal trainer.  Her well-equipped studio is in a high-ceilinged basement halfway down the next block, so it couldn’t be more convenient.  I’d walked past it for a couple of months on my way to the bus station and thought often about checking it out.  I finally dropped in and was so impressed by her positive energy that I put myself in her hands – figuratively speaking, of course!   She’s a bit expensive, but she promises me that if I do what she says I’ll be back in pretty good shape by the time we leave eight weeks from now – maybe not quite fat-free, but certainly slimmer and stronger and feeling better about myself.  We’ve got specific, measurable goals that I’m committed to achieve, with her help.  We’ve already changed not only what we eat but when and how, so Sylv will get a little benefit out of my new regimen too.   I feel better already!
The weather has definitely turned.  Gone are those 40º+ days (over 100º Fahrenheit).  Now daily highs are down in the 70-75ºF. range and in the evenings it’s closer to 60ºF.   Also, after no rain for over 100 days this year, we’re getting showers and squalls coming in off the sea almost daily – often while the sun is shining!  It’s very pleasant, though.  More like normal to us.
We’ve been on a reading binge since we got here; I think we’ve read at least a book a week.   Besides what I can order on my Kindle for $9.95, there’s a second hand bookshop around the corner with a $2 table we check frequently.   We’ve binged on Ian Rankin, a Scottish detective story writer we like who seems to be popular here, judging by the number of his books on the table.   But we’ve also bought several books by Tim Winton (a wonderful WA author) that we hadn’t read, a couple by Richard Flanagan (a terrific writer from Tasmania) and another marvelous WA writer we’ve only just discovered, Robert Drewe.  We’re less enthused about another couple of Australian writers whose work we’ve sampled, Elizabeth Jolley (who isn’t) and Barbara Baynton, but both have given us more insight into what it was like here for the early settlers.  (In a word, grim.)
Sunday noon we walked up the big hill to King’s Park (my second time that day; I’d fast-walked up it earlier in the morning) for a vantage point from which to watch the Red Bull Air Race (aka the energy drink marketing championships, according to the local paper) taking place in the Swan River below.   A dozen small single-wing probably purpose-built planes buzzed around and between tall pylons in the river set up like a cross between a slalom course and an equestrian course.  Their wingtips were often only a couple of feet from the water as they banked and hard-turned and looped and swooped.   There were hundreds of people ooing and aahing up in the park where we were, whole families picnicking on the grassy hillsides, and many thousands more lined the shores and filled the grandstands set up on the other side of the river – 135,000, the paper said.  I think there was a little of a NASCAR-type tingle of potential disaster drawing the crowd because a Brazilian pilot had caught a wingtip on a wave during practice the other day and had his plane disintegrate beneath him.  Other than a slight concussion, he was OK, thank goodness.  A rescue helicopter hovers just off the course at all times and a dozen EMT’s on jet skis are in the water to get to a pilot fast in case of a crash.  But the incident did add a certain frisson for the spectators today.
There was about as much signage as you see at a NASCAR race, too.  The planes are very colorful – red and white, black and gold, silver, bright yellow – and their wings all carry the names of their primary sponsor writ large.   Even the pylons out in the river sport big corporate logos.  Through the binoculars, I can also see what I’m sure are hospitality tents over near the grandstand and the sponsor for the race itself is of course Red Bull.
It was amazing to watch the skill of these aerobats, the maneuvers they perform so close to the water at such scary speeds – the planes are capable of something like 400kph, I read the other day.   The pilots can pull as much as 11G’s in a tight turn around one of the pylons.
When the races themselves were over, an RAAF pilot in an A-37 Dragonfly (a derivative of the U.S. T-37 trainer – powered by two GE J85 engines I was pleased to note) performed an equally amazing set of aerobatics over the course at even higher speeds and of course much more of a roar than a buzz.   The last act was the RAAF Roulettes, a six-plane precision flying team flying red and white two-person single wing aircraft powered by a 1000hp turboprop engine.   They also wowed the crowd.   Delightful afternoon, gorgeous weather, terrific show.
I heard a Chinese woman on the bus the other day speaking with a Scottish accent, which made me think about how diverse Perth is.  All of Australia, for that matter.   Within 15 years, fewer than half the people in Australia will have been born in this country.  But then the country is only 110 years old; that stat was almost certainly true of the U.S. too in 1886.

My computer gives me a choice of American English or British English, but I think Apple should add Australian English.   Here’s a sampling of some words and my guesses at their definitions from just one column in Monday’s The West Australian:  The grump (irritated?)  Rort (overcharge?)   Hoon (speeder)   Strewth (it’s true)   Stoush (maybe a fight?)   Bottler, ripper, you-beaut (maybe sexy?)   A slab of VB (VB is Victoria Bitter; a slab must be some large quantity) Bewdy (beauty?)   Flak-catcher (PR person, I think)  Pipped (beaten by a narrow margin is my guess)  Budgie smugglers  (possibly tight swimming trunks – I can guess at the derivation!)
There’s a series of monthly concerts at His Majesty’s Theatre called “Morning Melodies” that I’d guess is designed for senior citizens – at least that’s the category that just about everyone who was there this morning fit.   We’d tried to go to the first one last month, but it was the week of the great Perth hailstorm and the stage area had suffered a little water damage so the program was postponed.  Too bad.  It was going to be a tribute to the songs of Vera Lynn called “We’ll Meet Again” – another tip-off that these are for us older folk!   Anyhow, this morning’s concert was called “Maestro – A Celebration of Musical Eccentrics.”   The performer was a pianist named David Scheel, described by one reviewer as “Technically brilliant, and between compositions, hilariously funny.”   He was sort of a cross between the late Victor Borge, who probably invented this genre, and Peter Schickele, an American professor who performs a comedy classical music routine called “P.D.Q. Bach.”   Sylv laughed so hard her mascara washed away!

Our seats were in the front row of the dress circle, so we were able to appreciate what a magnificent venue His Majesty’s Theatre is.  The most beautiful hall we’ve ever visited, I think.   We’re so lucky to live only half-a-block away.

When I was out walking yesterday, every street corner in the CBD featured a couple of Halloween-costumed young people waving a newspaper of some sort and rattling a donation can.  I couldn’t understand what they were yelling so I have no idea what it was in aid of, but I didn’t have any change in my shorts anyway.
There was an earthquake this morning in Kalgoorlie, where we were a couple of weeks ago.   Lots of damage to the hundred-year-old buildings, or at least their facades.   Dan and Diane, my colleagues at the school, are calling it “the Lauterborn effect.”   It hadn’t rained in Perth for over 100 days until we arrived and then the great hailstorm happened, flooding our offices.   Now we go to the goldfields and first thing you know, there’s an earthquake.  Hmmm.
You may remember that in a blog or two ago I wrote about our visiting the Super Pit, the enormous open cast gold mining site in Boulder, the town adjoining Kalgoorlie.  Geologists are speculating that those deep mining operations may have caused some instability in the earth that at least contributed to the quake.  The epicenter was apparently quite close to the pit.
Somebody stuffed a flyer into my hand the other day.  I figured they must be Communists – it’s the only way to get to the left of the ruling Labor Party, its main opposition, the Liberal Party, and the minority Greens.   (Alas, there are no Tories in Australia.   Elections recently held in island state of Tasmania point up the “balance.”  Among the 25 MP’s now in office there, ten are Labor, ten are Liberal and five are Greens.)   Anyhow, when I got around to reading this flyer, it turned out to be from a different minority party which sounds a bit Libertarian.  The flyer warned that Australia’s improving economy is an illusion; that it’s primarily built on turnover from debt-financed real estate speculation with the government colluding with developers and bankers to keep prices escalating.  Perth proper is now officially the highest-cost real estate market in the country.   The average price in prime neighborhoods for a residential building lot is something like half-a-million dollars.  That’s just for the ground.  Bubble, anyone?
Another factoid from the flyer:  among all the countries of the world, only Mongolia and Namibia have a lower population density than Australia’s 2.9 people per square kilometer.   Of course the variation across the country is extreme.  Manly and Bondi, two Sydney suburbs, have a population density 2400 times greater than that!  Everybody lives around the edges of the continent; the middle is empty.  The minority party was advocating government investment in infrastructure to encourage people to settle inland.  Even the Liberals were pushing a resettlement initiative the other day.  They noted that while thousands of people are collecting unemployment benefits in the big cities, there are jobs going begging all over the country.  They actually floated the idea of kicking able-bodied young men under 30 off the unemployment rolls to encourage them to move to where the jobs are.  Great furor ensued, of course.
Thursday night we went to a funny little theatre over by the library to see a two-person musical called “Mummy Loves You, Betty Ann Jewel.”  Wow!  Insightfully written and cleverly staged in a limited space.  (Would you believe we were in the front row again?  The actresses were sometimes cavorting so close to us that we could feel the heat from their bodies.)  Outstanding performances by both characters, the 23-year-old who persuaded us that she was a little girl, and her mother.  Totally first-rate.   The Blue Room Theatre (that’s its name) has another production running at the same time in another space – it’s sort of a mini-multiplex for live theatre!   We were so impressed that we might just go back tomorrow night to see the other play.

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