Category Archives: Travel

Travels through literature, alcohol and America: A review of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by Olivia Laing

The trip to echo springErnst Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver had at least two things in common: they are all giants of 20th Century American literature and…they were all confirmed, raging alcoholics.

These two commonalities are the basis for ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by English author Olivia Laing, a writer and book reviewer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers.

The title of the book refers a line said by the sexually conflicted character Brick in Tennessee Williams’ great Southern play ‘Cat on a Hat Tin Roof‘.  He says it to indicate he is going to get a drink of whiskey: to numb the pain of his “mendacity”.

Laing sets out to explore how these six writers – whom she admired greatly and who shaped the course of American fiction – experienced, thought about, wrote about and dealt with their addiction to alcohol.

She does so by undertaking a physical trip across America in the Spring of 2011 starting in New York and staying in the Elysee, a hotel in Manhattan’s theatre district where Tennessee Williams spent his last days, and finishing in Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the upper north corner of Washington State, where Raymond Carver lived the last years of his life  and wrote some of his best short stories while living with the poet Tess Gallagher.

In between, Laing heads down to New Orleans to sit at the hotel bar where Tennessee Williams came in for a drink and to pick up young men and to attend the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, flies south-east to balmy Key West, Florida to visit Hemingway haunts, takes a train west to Baltimore and North Carolina to follow Fitzgerald’s own journey and then chugs out west to Illinois and Minneapolis, tracing the fatal path of the poet, John Berryman.

Amongst all this travel, are Laing’s reflections and contemplations of the alcoholic lives of these writers interwoven with meditative observations of the vast, constantly changing American landscape, mostly from her train window. She writes:

“In Alabama the earth was red and their was Wisteria in the trees. Somewhere deep in the country the train stopped in a pine forest. It was very quiet. A needle dropped lazily through the warm air. The woman beside me was on the phone…”

“Between Tuscaloosa [Alabama] and Meridian [Mississippi] we ran through uninterrupted miles of forest. The hills were covered in bone-grey timber, split and weather-worn into fantastic shapes. Then open country with cows grazing…

I awoke again at dawn. This time the world outside was white. North Dakota, flat as an ironed sheet.

The constant travel not only gives the book it’s part travel-guide feel, but also it’s momentum. Laing is not only on a journey to discover more about her literary heroes and their afflictions, but is also on a journey of self-discovery; making sense of a disjointed, dysfunctional upbringing and one washed through with alcohol. Her mother’s partner was a violent alcoholic.

One of the great strength of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring” and a sign of its success is that makes you want to go out and read (or re-read) the works of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Berryman and Carver, reminded as you are of their massive contribution to the world of literature despite the booze, blackouts, collapses, rehabilitations and relapses.

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Just off the top of my head I could reel off a dozen books, plays and poetry collections I’ve now added to my “must read” list:

- The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
- Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
- Death in the Afternoon (Hemingway)
- Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald)
- The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald – AGAIN!)
- Cathedral (Carver)
- Dream Songs (Berryman)
- Recovery (Berrryman)

Already, a copy of Cheever’s novel “Falconer” about a jailed heroin addict is waiting beside my bed and I’ve begun to read the opening scene of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from an old paperback that was tucked into the book shelf. And I am waiting for the opportunity to watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as Maggie and Brick.

Laing has great empathy for her heroes because of the writing they produced,  but she does not sentamentalise them, brush aside their faults or criticise their weaker efforts. Nor is their any glamorization of alcoholism:

[On Cheever's drinking in 1966]: “…his drinking had passed well beyond normal measures now, even bearing in mind the norms of the time. When he wasn’t on location [filming his short story 'The Swimmer'] he wrote in the early hours of the morning and by half past ten could be found twitching in the kitchen waiting for his family to disperse so he could administer the first self-soothing scoop of scotch or gin. If they didn’t leave quick enough he’d drive himself to the liquor store, where he’d buy a bottle, motor on to some pretty back street and sit there suckling, inevitably spilling a good slug down his chin.

All six writers were at times monstrous personalities, capable of inflicting great cruelty on their wives, children, lovers, friends and families: Raymond Carver almost killed his wife and was resentful of his own children, Tennessee Williams once defecated in a university hallway, John Cheever projected his closeted homosexuality into rage against his wife.

The book is rich with analysis of the works of fiction these writers produced as well as their non-fiction articles and memoirs. But she is no literary snob, relishing the opportunity to join a tour group visiting Hemingway’s home and museum in Key West or do a Tennessee Williams walk in New Orleans or enjoy meals with retired farmers on her train journeys.

The conclusions she reaches about these writers are not surprising – that they drank to deaden the pain of their childhood, their parents, their sexuality, their broken-ness, their perceived and real failures, while writing was a way to try to become whole again.

None,  apart from John Cheever, managed to stop drinking though they all tried. None lived into old age and two – Berryman and Hemingway -  died at their own hand.

But ultimately it is the journey that Laing takes you on through the minds and immense body of work of these giants of fiction that is the real joy

Not the destination.

Links:
An interview with the author, Olivia Laing  (Buzzfeed)
A review of The Trip to Echo Springs by The Times Literary Supplement
Olivia Laing’s personal website

Unhappy dick heads exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour: a cyclist’s view of motorists

cycling“Bloody dick head”

Actually it sounded more like “Bludy deek hed” spat out from a scowling face hanging out the side of a white Camry as it hurtled past me.

The man, in a rage, was yelling at me and speeding up at the same time, admonishing me for cycling across the street in front of him, while at the same time trying his best to run me down.

In my opinion I’d judged things perfectly; I am not by any stretch of the imagination a reckless cyclist (unless being slow is considered dangerous), but the crazy, googly-eyed man in the white Camry decided I was and let me know it, shaking his fist like King Kong.

Only three time since June last year (when I began cycling again) have I nearly been run over, the other two times by motorists who didn’t see me as I sped down a hill in the dark.

This  was despite having two flashing lights attached to the front of my bike. In the one instant, having nearly driven into me, rather than apologize, the young bloke in a red Mazda started hurling insults my way: “Bloody dick head,” I yelled back, or words to that effect.

The other time, the young lady driver drove away sheepishly after I’d slammed on the breaks in the middle of the road, a hand raised meekly in front of her face, before speeding off.

But these near calamities have been rarities and I am thankful that most motorists are overly cautious around me, some to the point of driving on the wrong side of the road and straight towards oncoming traffic.

My general experience of cycling on a daily basis since June last year has been uneventful.

I’ve not yet encountered any psycho motorists who have deliberately tried to run me off the road, or over.  The most dangerous drivers appear to be the elderly, whose chief problem is seeing above the steering wheel or judging the width of the road or their car.

But riding on two wheels, propelled forward by your own sweat and toil while cars zoom past does give one an unusual perspective on those on four wheels.

If I can blunt: motorists are not a happy bunch, at least they don’t look happy when driving.

angry-motorist-wants-angry-joggerThey sit hunched over their steering wheels, they snarl and they grimace. There is a zealous, craven look in their eyes.

If Freud had ridden a bicycle, he might have gained great insights into the  passive-aggressive personality type.

It seems to defy common sense that motorists deliberately ram the bottom of their cars over speed humps, rather than slowdown.

And while they for the most part, avoid hitting me, I’ve noticed another passive-aggressive tendency: speeding up extravagantly when passing me and then looking back at me through the rear view mirror to perhaps check that a) I am still upright and b) to remind me (with a nod to George Orwell) that, four wheels are always better than two.

Of course, I probably look peculiar to motorists, a heavily bearded man in an ill-fitting helmet and business clothes peddling a noisy bike up a hill, occasionally cursing the pensioner flying past.

A little while ago, an elderly lady passed me while cycling up a hill appearing to whistle and hardly trying at all. I was infuriated and vowed to pass her.

As she disappeared further and further into the distant: a bobbing grey-haired speck in high vis yellow, I furiously pedaled cranking my way through the gears until my thighs threatened to seize up and my chest burned. She was probably sipping a cup of tea by the time I pushed my bike through gate red-faced.

And I can only wonder what another older woman hidden behind a rose-bush in her immaculate garden thought when I decided on afternoon on my way home that it was safe to raise my butt cheeks triumphantly off the saddle and  expel and noisy, violent fart.

Wearing gloves and holding a pair of pruning scissors, her head appeared from behind the tree, while her nose twitched the freshly scented air.

“Bloody dick head” perhaps she muttered under her breath.

When in Bali… eat Italian, Spanish, or French

What you quickly learn about Seminyak, the tourist enclave on Bali’s west coast – apart from its crippling traffic congestion – is an obsession with eating well.

Seminyak, from the rooftop bar of Double Six Hotel

Seminyak, from the rooftop bar of Double Six Hotel

Everyone has a favourite restaurant. Stuck in an endless traffic jam, as mopeds whizz by, the chatter in the minivan is all about gourmet cuisine.

People talk about Sardine, which serves international and French-inspired seafood creations by Californian chef Michael Shaheen, and beach club establishment Ku De Ta, where Byron Bay’s Ben Cross prepares Mediterranean-inspired cuisine while American pastry chef Jeff Goldfarb has set up a laboratory to develop new flavours. Then there’s Mama San, run by former Longrain chef Will Meyrick, offering an inventive pan-Asian menu.

Bali is undergoing a food revolution, with overseas chefs setting up establishments at a fraction of the cost of doing so back home, catering to the taste experiences demanded from Bali’s Australian, European and mainland Indonesian visitors.

Hipster joints

Having spent a good 90 minutes stuck on Jalan Petitenget, we give up on sampling some cheap local fare at Warung Sulawesi, a traditional Indonesian restaurant serving rice dishes, curries and stir-fries, and pull up instead at Latin American meat joint Barbacoa – a relatively new addition to the hipster list.

Barbacoa is a big open-plan establishment with mosaic-tiled floors and high ceilings. Near the entrance, a wood fire crackles below what makes the restaurant’s signature dish – slowly roasting whole pigs basted in chimichurri (an Argentinian herb and garlic sauce) – which must be ordered in advance.

Slow roasted pork, the speciality at Barbacoa

Slow roasted pork, the speciality at Barbacoa

Barbacoa is run by former Sydney chef Adam Dundas-Taylor, whose CV also includes stints at Nobu and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, both in London. We get a table outside and order a selection of tapas. Highlights include tender Cuban pulled pork sliders ($4.50) with pickled red onion, aioli and tomato, and salt brined chicken winglets with agave and pumpkin seed powder ($6.50). All are washed down with Bintang, the local brew.

Dundas-Taylor says he originally planned to open a Mexican restaurant in Seminyak with chef and business partner Sean Prenter, but was forced to “regroup” after a rush of Mexican establishments opened up in a short space of time.

“We kept a little bit of the Mexican tapas and then mixed it with my love of Argentinian charcoal cooking and my knowledge of Peruvian cooking from my days spent working at Nobu.”

High demand for international fare

While demand for international fare is high, competition among restaurateurs is intense. Offering something with an international flavour does not guarantee success. “It’s very important that you become one of the 10 restaurants on the dining circle in Bali,” Dundas-Taylor says. “A lot of people think Bali is dense in people and customers, but actually the food industry is quite [the] opposite.

“I feel that Bali is calling for a certain amount of international food. What some people may not realise is that the market in Bali is already saturated. and location and price point has a lot to do with your success. There are many restaurants struggling,”

In the new luxury Double-Six Seminyak hotel overlooking the beach and next door to the crazily popular Cocoon bar and nightclub, Sydney chef Robert Marchetti has created international food experiences with the backing of hotel owner and prominent Bali businessmen, Kadek Wiranatha.

Marchetti’s Seminyak Italian – his first venture here – overlooks the meandering hotel swimming pool (the longest in Bali) with gorgeous beach views. It includes a glassed-in pasta room where fresh spaghetti, ravioli and penne are made by hand. In another glass cubicle hang mortadella, salami and prosciutto alongside Italian cheeses, all part of Marchetti’s desire to create a “great fun Italian eatery” with local produce.

An faux-Italian  ice-cream vendor on wheels, hotel Double Six

An faux-Italian ice-cream vendor on wheels, hotel Double Six

“Burrata (an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) is made specifically for us on the island,” he says. “We use lots of local seafood and the mountains of Bali grow plenty of great fresh produce.”

Menu highlights include Granchio alla Veneta, hand-picked crab meat with garlic and chilli on a bed of mascarpone polenta ($9) and for dessert, tiramasu ($9) scooped straight from the baking tray at the table.

In October, Marchetti will open the Plantation Grill, a Great Gatsby-styled diner, specialising in dry aged meat and line-caught seafood cooked over open grills and in wood-fired ovens.

World-class destination

Marchetti says Bali has really evolved over the past five to 10 years to become a world-class food destination. And it just continues to get better, he continues. “It’s a really creative island in every sense and the possibilities are endless.”

Travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes, author of the Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok guide, understands the apparent dissonance between location and food. “Just because people are on Bali doesn’t mean they want to eat Balinese and Indonesian food every meal,” he says. And I say that as someone who loves nasi campur (lunchtime plate of mixed dishes) and babi guling (succulent roasted and spiced suckling pig).

Ver Berkmoes, who grew up in California, says a big part of Bali is eating out. “Bali has hit the sweet spot with a whole slew of excellent restaurants serving foods from around the world that you can eat for a fraction of what the same meal would cost at home.”

“The onslaught of tourists means that if you’re good, you do great business yet your costs are low, even if your food is grown organic or sourced internationally.”

The only thing that’s more expensive is the wine – around $50 a bottle for good Australian plonk – courtesy of Indonesia’s “insane Indonesian tax system.”

Ver Berkmoes’s advice: “Enjoy the $10 mains and learn to love Bintang.”

IMG_0048

The writer was a guest of Double-Six.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

to-rome-with-love-12

Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

begning

Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” -

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.

Have you paid too much for your iPad?

ipadFinancial institution CommSec recently published an interesting global retailing index called the iPad Index.

The index ranks the cost of a buying an Apple Air 16 GB wi-fi iPad in 51 different countries converted into US dollars at prevailing exchange rates, mirroring The Economist’s much more famous Big Mac index.

The latest iPad Index shows Australia slipped from 4th cheapest country to purchase the popular computer tablet in September last year to 13th on the latest list – still (surprisingly) one of the cheapest places in the world to buy the gadget.

The fall down the list reflects a decision by Apple to lift local pricing rather than currency fluctuations – the Australian dollar was around 94 US cents when the index was compiled, hardly changed from an exchange rate of 94.3 US cents in September last year.

Untitled

The Apple iPad Index

Malaysia at $494 is actually the cheapest place for Australians to buy an iPad, saving you around US$68 off the Australian price ($562). Canada and Japan both add sales taxes to their purchases, pushing their iPad prices well above $500.

As the index shows, you certainly wouldn’t want to buy an iPad while visiting  Brazil for this year’s Fifa World Cup while much of Europe is also a no-go zone for cheap iPad purchases, mainly because of high taxes.

Alternatively, if you’re a Kiwi heading over to Australia for the Bledisloe Cup, you could save yourselves around $90 by purchasing an iPad over here.

Even if you’re not planning any overseas trips, the fall in Australia’s iPad Index ranking is interesting for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it could be interpreted to reflect Apple’s gouging of its Australian customers at the same time as its also gouges those who purchase songs and movies on iTunes (ABC show The Checkout highlighted this recently and provided a way around it), whilst gouging the Australian Tax office by shifting all of its taxable profits offshore. If you’re not feeling the Apple love, perhaps a Samsung or Google Nexus device will do instead.

Secondly, in the word’s of CommSec chief economist Craig James the index reflects why “on-line shopping sites and the power of travel are putting pressure on Australia retailers to remain competitive”. “If local pricing isn’t responsive to exchange rate changes then Aussie shoppers will increasingly look overseas to purchase imported items,” James says.

Thirdly, for investors, the current index could be interpreted to mean that the Australian dollar is overvalued if you compare it with the cost of an iPad in California ($543) but undervalued if you compare it with what it costs in China ($578) where all iPads are manufactured.

Fourthly, the higher price may also reflect higher Australian freight costs, tariffs and mark-ups.

So it’s a useful index both for retailers who want to remain competitive and for consumers, if they’re planning a holiday in the coming months and want to upgrade their tablet.

Alternatively, if you’ve got a friend visiting from Argentina or Brazil or Europe, a visit to an Australian Apple store might be a good suggestion.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

gerald durrell older man

Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.

Of trains, trams and tiny apartments: Melbourne’s collapsing public transport network

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year's time?

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year’s time? Source: http://sachinkhosla.com/fun/pakistan-train-bizarre

Those, like me, who suffer the daily train commute into Melbourne will know of the train driver who enjoys performing his stand-up comedy material.

One of his favourite lines, when the train is overcrowded, is to remind squashed passengers that “a packed train is better than no train at all”.

This, I suspect, may reflect more the prevailing Metro Trains’ attitude towards its service, than an attempt at lightening the mood.

The truth is that Melbourne’s transport network is no joke, unless you like your humour black and enjoyed from underneath a stranger’s armpit.

The city seems to be grinding towards eventual standstill and gridlock: train and tram cancellations and delays are daily occurrences; timetables have become objects of hope and derision rather than of any practical use.

Train stations have become places of confusion and chaos; on board, commuters endure sardine-like conditions, the sighs and grunts of frustrated fellow commuters, and worst of all, bad jokes from train drivers. None of this is helped by the disinterested, robot-like announcements of platform announcers, who deliver the unwelcome news with the indifference of someone reading the daily shipping report.

About the only good thing about a packed train is the lack of room for authorised officers (transport police) to patrol the carriages sniffing out fare evaders, though I wouldn’t put it past them to try.

But these problems are only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapid urbanisation and a desire to embrace Manhattan-style apartment living is bringing more and more people streaming into inner-ring suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In just one example, Melbourne’s Yarra City Council says it expects half a dozen new apartment developments to spring up along the Victorian-era streetscape of Smith Street, each adding dozens (sometimes hundreds) of new residents who will need to catch the train, tram or bus to the city.

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The council claims there are no “glaring deficiencies” in transport services on Smith Street but that it is monitoring the situation and “understands” there are improved tram services planned. Hardly reassuring, when local residents claim you can’t get on a tram that runs up and down the street as it is. This scenario is being replicated in dozens of inner-city suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, where transport infrastructure is at breaking point.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton, a renowned authority on urbanisation and planning, expects a proliferation of six-to-nine-storey apartment blocks along all Melbourne’s Victorian retailing streetscapes in the next few years with little restriction on height, the number of apartments or their sizes, allowing developers to chase maximum profits. Last year, a developer called Sixth Lieutenant received approval for 28 apartments, some as small as 33 square metres (about four Toyota minivans lined up side by side), on a tiny 142-square-metre site on Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s so-called blueprint for development of the city to 2050 when the population is forecast to reach 6.5 million, acknowledges the increased congestion on roads and public transport and talks loftily about a long-term plan of developing a more efficient, faster “metro train service” that does not share train lines with regional services.

It’s an admirable vision, but many, many years away, if it happens at all.

The truth is that the Victorian government’s transport plans are lagging far behind huge demographic changes favouring inner-city living, when they should be leading them or at the very least, keeping pace.

In Mexico City, the best functioning megacity I’ve yet visited, a subway train comes every two or three minutes, and end-to end-journeys cost three pesos – about 25 Australian cents. In New York, an extensive, efficient and usually reliable subway network removes the need for cars.

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York's subway system

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York’s subway system

But in supposedly the world’s most liveable city, we find ourselves cursing as the train announcer drones on about another delayed or cancelled service. I wonder just how long it will be until those scenes of Japanese passengers being prodded and shoved into trains by uniformed platform officials become part of the daily commute here. It can surely only be a matter of time.

(This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.)