Friday, August 20, 2004

Dali Faces on the Tube

A friend reckons I am one of the scary people on the Tube. I like to watch people, to try and plumb the depth of their character by observing the minute of their faces and bodies as they wait in the introverted suspended animation that the Tube requires of you. This friend tells me that when I watch people I get an intense look on my face that reminds her of a Dali painting that she once saw. When she imitates my look, she looks crazy, and I hope she is exaggerating because I do not want to make my fascinating subjects uncomfortable as they entertain me on my journey through the bowels of London, swerving around plague pits and hurtling past deserted stations.

To Her Door

One of the most haunting passengers of my travels got on at Morden with me with a large polystyrene box, carefully taped, something that you would transport a fragile object in. He sat in the corner of the carriage, his entire being concentrated completely on the box in his lap. The importance of this container was the first thing that drew my eye to him; it radiated off him as if he were on the verge of violent movement if it were disturbed.

I watched him almost visibly invest all his current presence into the box, a man with incredibly rough workman’s hands, clothes and sneakers that were spotlessly clean, yet heavily stained with the kind of dirty that speaks of hard labour and little need to have a set of nice clothes. I was incredibly drawn to the stroking movement of his callused hands, soothing and comforting the box in his lap. My stop was coming up and I was poised to do the unthinkable, approach a stranger on the Tube to ask him what was in his box.

I didn’t, perhaps because I have been in London long enough to know that speaking on the Tube is frowned upon, probably because I had my own thoughts on the contents of his lovingly nursed box. It was piece of art, a sculpture perhaps, the purest expression of his reticent artistic soul, carefully freed from the confines and expectations of the brickyard and the pub.

I would like to think he was taking it to a quiet doorstep in far north London, to a wife that had left because she wasn’t sure she still loved him, and a child that missed him terribly. Perhaps he had found that crafting the forms of his loved ones had cleared his head and directed his heart, and he had a powerful symbol of love to give to those for whom he cared most.

Whatever the contents of that box, I hope his feelings were rewarded, because they are still with me.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Two sides to each story

Since I started travelling, I have begun to treasure the more unusual of Australian national traits, including our unique outlook on defeat. The fact that tens of thousands of young Australians travel to ANZAC Cove each year to commemorate months of slaughter ending in inevitable defeat is indicative of our appreciation for hard work, whether it ends in wealth or death.

Young Australians travel to the Gallipoli Peninsula in tour groups, spend almost 24 hours on the site visiting memorials, waiting for the Dawn Service and standing on the soil that birthed the Australian sense of country and identity. Yet we are people of life and spirit, who work hard and try to empathise with others, in a place of sorrow and death, created by incompetence and intolerance.

My first trip to ANZAC Cove was made in the company of the victors of those hideous killing fields - the Turks. A friend of mine with ties to the young people of the Turkish town of Gelibulu, after which the Gallipoli Peninsula is named, invited me along on a tour organised for Turkish university students that would take us around the Gallipoli memorial site. Like us, these young people were travelling to Gallipoli to commemorate an important moment in their country's history, both in relation to the war and to the post-war identity of the nation. Whilst they lost significantly more men to the Peninsula than the ANZACs, they do have a far more positive reason for celebration. The victorious General Ataturk of Gallipoli went on to become the founding father of their uniquely modern culture that straddles both east and west in an unusually harmonious meeting of politics and culture.

Since the tour was a Turkish one organised by boys who lived in Gelibulu, we spent the night before the Dawn Service in the town, eating in the restaurant on the beach, spending an hour cruising on the Bosporus on a troop carrier and partying in the nightclub to Turkish pop music. As the only two foreigners on the trip, Kim and I were much in demand as conversational partners and I was incredibly gratified to find myself in fascinating discourse with my fellow travellers, me in my only language, they in their second.

We started out for ANZAC Cove at about 1 pm and I was slumped, exhausted, in my seat, watching the impenetrable dark from the softly lit coach and conducting a dreamy conversation with one of the more loquacious of the young Turkish philosophers. As we started out on the long walk to the Cove for the long hours of waiting for the Dawn Service, he told me that my grandfathers and his would be terribly proud that he and I were walking, hand in hand, in companionship and intellectual understanding, on the soil soaked in their blood.

I always manage to experience the emotional resonances of a historical site, but it was this young man's words, spoken in softly accented English in the hushed bush land of Gallipoli that brought home to me the incredible act that is the ANZAC Day celebrations on ANZAC Cove. Citizens from both sides of the conflict converge each year to celebrate the fact that while they may have slaughtered each other's young men mercilessly then, the fallen lie in the same soil now and their descendents sleep side by side in the early hours of the morning to wake with the sun and celebrate the end of conflict.

Gracious in their victory, the incredible hospitality and tolerance of the Turks assures us that we are more than welcome to stay - both to remember the loss of life in war and to enjoy the amazing country that was born out of the conflict. General Ataturk comforted those who mourned the ANZAC dead with true warmth and understanding -

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 Mehemets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Claire travelled to Gallipoli with Gursal Tours.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Swingin' Cats

The BBC Proms is the biggest musical festival in Britain. It was started by Queen Victoria, and the Last Night at the Proms, broadcast live and screened in parks around London, is an event that allows the British to really display their national pride. I decided to go and see the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra this year, the only non-classical performance in the programme. Four pound standing room only tickets go on sale before the start of the concert and Lizzie and I lined up for three hours for our tickets. Thankfully the night was gorgeous – clear, warm and balmy – perfect conditions for perching on stone steps for hours keeping an eagle eye out for queue jumpers. Even better was that we were right by the huge BMW people mover with tinted windows when it disgorged the orchestra itself - the American jazz musicians alighted, grinned at the crowd, eyed a few girls and sauntered into the Hall. We had lined up for the Gallery, the very top tier of the Royal Albert Hall, and we sat on the floor and peered down through the wrought iron railings into the vast hall below.

The orchestra was pure magic. They had rhythm, they had melody, and what they couldn't do with soul wasn't worth knowing. The air in the Hall was heavy and still with the heat and when you added the sound wriggling it's way into my blood via my ears, my entire body was captured by the music. At some points the beat was so insistent I felt my blood was punching holes through my skin in an attempt to dance unfettered. The leader of the Orchestra was a trumpeter and his skill was undeniable – incredible passages of trumpet solos delivered in double time with a stunning clarity, like having each note dropped as a diamond in your ear. At one point the drummer drove a movement entirely with a tambourine, proving the slightly naff instrument had a range of sound that equalled his drum kit.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the performance was the edgy warmth of the methods of making sounds. I got to hear scat singing for the first time which nearly had me forgetting to breathe as I tried to follow the singer’s swoops and loops of sound. The pianist reached into his open piano at one point and stroked his notes out of the piano wires while the double bass player used his wooden instrument as a drum – not the way I would have thought you could use the instrument and therefore all the more entertaining. Some of the musicians had three instruments and swapped with surprising ease from saxophone to clarinet to an unidentifiable-by-your-correspondent instrument variously throughout the song. And finally and very fittingly, the men used themselves and their surroundings to add that extra dimension – trombone and trumpet mutes were slammed repeatedly into the floor as another strong bass beat, the entire orchestra tapped their feet in complicated rhythms as they played and there were even solos when the rest of the orchestra were clapping, stamping and making low calls. Altogether the performance began to take on a personal and embracing feel.

What I loved most was the camaraderie between the musicians themselves and the orchestra with the crowd. As each section or musician played their part the others would turn around to watch and enjoy – bopping their heads or dancing slightly in pleasure. When we came to the second encore only six people came back on stage but they stood together in a tighter group, gathering around each soloist, and the rest sprawled out on the other side of the stage to listen. The crowd itself was a very appreciative one – never stinting on enthusiastic applause for each solo and managing to wring two encores from musicians. The last snatch of the concert was a trumpet solo that made you gasp, and as we raced down the stairs to get the last tube home I felt like I was leaving a jamming session with friends rather than a concert.