The bar was packed: last drinks in the age of Coronavirus

As the rest of the world went into lockdown a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, on a Saturday night, having a drink with my good mate Jonny at a bar on Carlisle Street, in Balaclava, a trendy, somewhat grungy inner southern suburb of Melbourne.

Half-jokingly, I’d set the wheels of the catch-up in motion, by suggesting we get together for a beer and a burger because it might be the last time we could do it “before the world ended”. It was also Jonny’s birthday later in the week.

At the time, New York and other major cities were already shutting down. Restaurants and bars were about to close in Manhattan and Italy was already a nation quarantined. But in Australia there were no real restrictions on daily life, except for a growing shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and pasta.

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Packed no more: The Rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse (Facebook)

‘Social distancing’ however was swiftly becoming a buzzword, but not on the rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street at 8.30pm on Saturday, March 14.

The scene was busy, loud and convivial. People sat shoulder to shoulder at tables or stood in small, huddled groups near the bar, drinks in hand, conversing about their lives, telling stories, laughing and smiling.

Jonny and I ordered two large ciders (a craft cider, particularly tasty) and found some seats at an unoccupied table, where we sipped our delicious drinks and held our own conversation talking about our lives: our families, our jobs, gripes, the latest shows we’d watched, books read, podcasts listened to. 

Both of us, now past the mid-forties mark, reminisced about the old days back in South Africa as we always tend to do on these catch-ups and wondered, as we always do, where all the time had gone.

Around us the bar was still noisy and buzzing. We enjoyed a second round of drinks and continued our conversation.

Though I was immersed in the scene, part of its social fabric (part of the problem I guess), I couldn’t shake the feeling that this supposed normality was both strange and fleeting. It was as if the terrace of happy people existed on a different planet from the rest of society who were at home, worrying about a disaster about to unfold.

A couple of hours passed and then it was time for us to depart and return to our separate worlds of parental responsibilities.

I headed to the bathroom on the way out, where a bloke standing next to me at the urinal exchanged some sort of half-drunk pleasantry. Then, as I attempted to wash and dry my hands at the basin, I nearly collided  with two men who emerged simultaneously from the toilet cubicle looking rather sheepish after a spot of, I imagined, illicit drug-taking.

A minute later, Jonny and I emerged back on Carlisle Street and into the fresh night air. Drunken chatter wafted across the road from another pub a few shops down. Cars whizzed past and a couple waited, in intimate embrace, for the traffic lights to change.

We walked past a half-lit dessert cafe with a display window full of eclairs, pastries and cream-filled cakes.  Driving back along Carlisle Street to drop Jonny off first in a nearby Melbourne suburb we passed another busy bar full of banter, booze and music.

It was only on the long drive home along the Calder Freeway under the endless expanse of stars and black night sky, that it dawned on me that perhaps I should not have been so cavalier as all those social beings on the rooftop of The Local Taphouse, sipping their drinks, grinning, laughing and carefree. Then again, the party was only hours from ending. For everyone. The music was about to stop.

The next day, Sunday March 15, brought with it the first of the restrictions: all overseas arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days, all cruise ships banned from Australia, gatherings of over 500 people no longer allowed.

A week later all pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, casinos, restaurants and cafes (save for takeaway orders) were ordered to close their doors and indoor gatherings were reduced to 100 people (now cut to two people). A 1.5 m social distance from others should be maintained and all non-essential travel should stop, we were told.

And so the world as I knew it ended for us in Australia as it had already for many others in New York, Rome, Los Angeles and London –  and almost certain to never to return in the form it once was.

The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street is now shuttered. The cider and beer taps are turned off, chairs are stacked on tables, the roof terrace empty and deathly quiet.

Just the ghosts of good times past remain as I try to conjure back the taste of that fruity cider.

 

The lucky lives of Judy and Alex Resofsky

Throughout her life Judy Resofsky considered herself lucky.  No doubt, her husband Alex did too.

Judy and Alex arrived in Australia in 1949 when they were in their early twenties, having both survived the horrors of Hungarian ghetto life and the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, to which many Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944.

At her funeral last month in Melbourne, Judy and Alex’s daughter Kathy Janovic told mourners the incredible story of how her mother had escaped the gas chambers.

On the day, she and others were to be murdered, the gas chambers had miraculously malfunctioned and she was spared.

Later, when the concentration camps were being evacuated and demolished, as the Russians advanced across Europe, Judy was one of thousands of emaciated Jews sent on a death march from Praust (Pruszcz Gdański) in North Western Poland.

At one stage during this horrendous ordeal, she and other women were resting in a barn when Russian soldiers entered and started to rape the women. Judy jumped out of a window and landed close to a Jewish Russian soldier, who saved her.

This was just another example of her mother’s good luck, her daughter Kathy said in a loving tribute to her warm, kind and generous parents.

One of eight children, born in Nyirbartor, in Eastern Hungary on July 5, 1926 to Adolph and Berta Winkler, and their first born, Judy was the only of her family to survive the mass extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.

Her husband Alex Resofsky, who also recently passed away, was born in the same Hungarian town of Nyirbator two years before Judy in 1924.

The second child of Mor and Berta Resofksy, Alex and his eldest sister Margaret were the only ones in their family to survive the holocaust.

After the family had been rounded up in the Sirna Pusata Ghetto, they were deported to Auschwitz. Alex’s mother and siblings did not survive the selection process and were murdered by the Nazis.

Alex passed through three more concentration camps – including the notorious Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald camp networks – before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

He was part of the Bricha underground movement that helped smuggle Jewish holocaust survivors out of Eastern Europe into what is today Israel.

In 1949 he sailed to Australia with his sister and future wife, Judy.

Here they lived for the next 69 years, making a life for themselves in Melbourne’s flourishing Jewish immigrant garment trade (supplying David jones with mens knitwear) and where they had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By all accounts – I sadly never met them – Alex and Judy were much-loved and treasured members of Melbourne’s close-knit Jewish community,and were actively involved in the important work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

A report from the JHC in September 2017 includes a picture of Judy and Alex along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 24 people in the photo.

resofsky family

Alex and Judy with their family, taken in September 2017 (Credit: Jewish Holocaust Centre)

 

The JHC report notes that through the generosity of the Resofsky’s, the centre was able to put its vast and important collection online, and that they did so in loving memory of their parents, Mor and Lenke Resofsky; Jeno and Berta Frisch; Adolf and Berta Winkler and all their siblings.

I only recently came across the incredible survival of the Resofskys while researching a story I was writing for The Australian Financial Review. It was about a shopping mall they owned near Geelong, and which their children recently sold.

It would have been a great privilege to have met Alex and Judy and heard their story of survival against the odds, and about their successful and happy lives in Melbourne.

Deepest sympathies to their family and friends.

 

A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)

 

 

All hail The Waterboys

waterboysThe fact was I could not sell my spare Waterboys ticket.

“Who are The Waterboys?”

That was the common response I got when I told people I was going to their gig at the Melbourne Recital Centre this past Friday night and had a spare ticket.

“You know that song ‘The whole of the moon’” and then I would badly hum the tune.

“Oh yes THAT song” was the reply. Others had never heard of the band formed by Scotsman Mike Scott  in 1983.

It was about 14 years since I last saw them perform at a folk music festival in Finsbury Park, London, headlined by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, which also featured the late, great Gary Moore.

It poured with rain that day and my chief memory is dancing in the mud to classic Waterboy songs like ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, with its glorious, rollicking fiddle melody, the mournful ‘Bang the drum’ – surely one of the most beautiful songs ever written – and the storytelling charm of ‘A girl called Jonny’.

Mike-Scott

Waterboys singer-songwriter Mike Scott

Age has not diminished the Dylan-esque voice, guitar and piano playing, and showmanship of Scott (a folky Mick Jagger) nor the wonderful fiddle playing of Steve Wickham, (considered the best rock fiddle player in the world by many) who gives The Waterboys their distinctive folk sound.

It was wonderful hearing all these songs again third row from front in an auditorium designed with the acoustics for classical music concerts.

The band performed five or six songs from their latest album – Modern Blues (against the backdrop of the album’s cover, a giant ‘nature man seemingly conducting music from a field of lavendar) – beginning with the rocking ‘Destinies Entwined’ and creating that rich ‘wall of sound’ with organ, keyboards, fiddle and guitars, before moving into familiar storytelling mode with the ‘The girl who slept for Scotland’, the cheeky ‘Rosalind you married the wrong guy’ and ‘Nearest thing to hip’ about the demise of British shopping streets, where the cool shops have all been replaced by bland chain stores.

By the end of the near two hour set, many people were dancing in the aisles, cheering and stomping their feet.

And next to me was an empty seat, a missed chance to see one of the world’s best rock-folk bands in blistering form.

For a taste of what you missed, Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys

“Fisherman’s Blues”

I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearin’ down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

I wish I was the brakeman
On a hurtlin’ fevered train
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland
Like a cannon in the rain
With the beating of the sleepers
And the burnin’ of the coal
Counting the towns flashing by
In a night that’s full of soul
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

Tomorrow I will be loosened
From bonds that hold me fast
That the chains all hung around me
Will fall away at last
And on that fine and fateful day
I will take thee in my hands
I will ride on the train
I will be the fisherman
With light in my head
You in my arms

Light in my head
You in my arms

Melburnians – enjoy the world’s best liveability while it lasts

traffic jam

Gridlock: where Melbourne is heading

Melburnians love to crow about Melbourne’s long-running status as the world’s most liveable city.

Melbourne has ranked top city in the world for the last four years in a row according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey – with Sydney a lowly seventh.

Melburnians rightly love to lord it over Sydneysiders and other global city dwellers, but I’m afraid our world’s best status is fading fast.

I could point to a hundred different articles (try this one on urbanisation by Fairfax economics writer Ross Gittins) or extensive research data to explain that we are building upwards at such a rate but without the necessary investment in transport infrastructure to get everyone to and from work, schools and the shops. 

My own daily commute into work is a good case study of the looming chaos that awaits. It begins with a short 15 minute bicycle ride from my home in Niddrie in the northern burbs to Essendon Station, where the Craigieburn line stutters along towards the city, 15 kilometres away.

What a year ago was a pleasant cycle down a quiet backstreet, where I could drift off into my own thoughts, is now a busy road packed with frustrated people-movers, utes, sedans and station wagons, who weave past me in desperation to avoid the gridlock on the main thoroughfare, Keilor Road.

Even this far out from the city, any vacant lot, deserted car yard or decrepid office building is giving way to an apartment block with dozens of units crammed on top. On the quieter streets, old houses have been bulldozed and replaced with three townhouses. 

 More people, more cars, same roads, same frequency of trains and trams. 

At Essendon Station, Rose Street is most days clogged with cars and buses while the train platform is just as crowded, heaving with already weary-looking fellow commuters.

melbourne platform

Flinders Station, Melbourne

There’s a collective groan as the citybound train pulls in and commuter’s faces stare back from inside carriages, pressed against the glass.

And that’s on a good day when there isn’t a dreary announcement about a train cancellation forcing two sets of commuters onto the same train, resulting in carriages packed so tightly you fear getting an itch you could never scratch.

Finally, twenty minutes later we pull into Southern Cross station. I extract my head from under a stranger’s armpit, apologise for inadvertently rubbing my backside against a pensioner’s bald head (hey, at least they got a seat), exhale, and make my way towards the escalators and the exit. Here a gang of transport Gestapo (train police) are usually standing by ready to spear tackle the elderly, children, mothers with babies and minority groups, should they have forgotten to swipe their Myki card.

Lucky for me I fit none of those categories.

queen liz

Fit for a queen? I think not!

Yet more fun awaits me later in the day when I hop onto a tram on Collins or Bourke Street for a meeting uptown – the geniuses who came up with the idea of free CBD trams seemingly did not factor in that every man, woman, child, homeless bum and confused tourist now chooses to take a tram rather than walk a city block.  Tempers flare as we all contort ourselves into weird shapes and postures. The tram driver, oblivious to the gang of drunk vagabonds that have boarded the train with shopping trolleys, four large dogs and a spicey pepperoni aroma, yells out that he won’t close the doors until we get off the steps.

Cursing under my breath, I decide to walk back to the office from my meeting…

Liveability my ass.

Melbourne’s crown is slipping as the city grinds towards eventual gridlock.

Anyone who takes a bus, train or tram – or is crazy enough to drive into work – can surely see that for themselves. The old cliched saying of “what goes up, must come down” applies when “up” means high rise apartments and “down” means liveability without investment in public transport

A very Scottish evening with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh

irvine welsh2I went to hear legendary Scottish author Irvine Welsh speak last week.

My friend Jonny, who has read all his books, invited me along to a talk hosted by the Wheeler Centre.

I have read just one of Welsh’s books, “Trainspotting”, but it was enough for me to say “yes” immediately.

Trainspotting – a brilliant, excruciating, haunting and often hilarious story about a group of doomed Scottish junkies set in the impoverished council estates of Edinburgh in the late 1980s/early 1990s – was published in 1993 and has sold more than 1 million copies in the UK alone.

It’s listed in my literary reference bible: “1001 Books You Should Read before Die” alongside contemporary literary masterpieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt and J.M. Coetzee.

welsh

Irvine Welsh with a fan in Melbourne

Welsh, a bald, tallish man sat down on stage  at the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street dressed casually in a black t-shirt, jeans and leather jacket looking like the kind of guy you’d strike up a conversation with about football at the pub. The only sign of possible eccentricity: bright red socks.

He was there ostensibly to promote his latest book which has the intriguing title of ‘The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’. It’s his first novel set entirely in the US – Welsh lives in Chicago and wrote and set the novel amongst Miami’s gym, fitness and dieting culture.

(“If people want to lose weight, they should just eat less. Instead, in America, they consume diets.” he says.)

It’s his first novel without a Scottish character with only the vaguest references to Scotland.

Putting on a bad American accent, Welsh recalled a line in the book spoken by one of the aggressive female characters to Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams:

“I don’t wanna go to a fillum set in Scotland or Bosnia speaking a language no one can understand.”

Williams reminded Welsh that he is had pronounced “film” in the Scottish dialect of “fillum”.

Welsh throws back his head and roars with laughter.

Miami agree with Welsh. He goes to gym, eats well, walks around in shorts and t-shirts taking in the good weather.

But his heart – thankfully – remains firmly rooted in Scotland, where he created his most iconic characters – Renton, Begbie, Sickboy and Spud.

It’s not just his heavy Scottish brogue that makes it hard to imagine he’s become an American in any way, he still clearly loves his homeland, telling the audience that he has enjoyed “discovering Scotland from the US”.

Moving to somewhere “exotic” like Miami, he says, made him realise that Scotland is “one of the f-cking weirdest places I have ever been to in my life.”

And he’s also kept up with local politics, noting that the country is “re-inventing itself from the inside out” and that it is an “exciting time” with the Scottish independence referendum vote on September 18 – a remark which draws a large cheer from fellow countrymen in the packed audience of devoted fans.

Welsh has also maintained that famous, sardonic, playful Scottish sense of humour, that made Trainspotting such a huge success.

He quips: “Scottish people are always wonderful to outsiders – they like people coming to visit, but they f-cking hate each other.”

He then jokes that the last time he visited Edinburgh everyone was so nice to each other, which meant he had nothing to write about.

This is thankfully an exaggeration with Welsh telling the audience that his next book – coming out next year – will be about a taxi driver in Edinburgh.

More than likely it will be about one of those failed characters, who he writes so well about – whether its Renton, Spud or Begbie in Trainspotting or the vicious Detective Seargeant Bruce Robertson in the recently filmed “Filfth” (a novel I’ve already picked up from the library).

Failure, is something which inspires Welsh and the characters he creates on the page: Trainspotting is not just about failed characters whose lives have been blown off course by heroin addiction but is set within a landscape of failure  created by Margaret Thatcher and her Tory cronies, and one experienced by Welsh himself.

“Failure is much more interesting to me than success,” he says. “I write about people who are going through a bad time, when things are falling apart.

“I try to show these characters grasping for the light switch,” a beautiful phrase, which encapsulates the sadness behind doomed characters like Tommy Laurence, a football-mad childhood friend of Renton in Trainspotting who turns to heroin after his girlfriend dumps him and ends up contracting AIDS.

“These are people who were not always like what they are now,” Welsh says.

Welsh himself knows a lot about failure. He couldn’t play football or cut it as a musician (his two other passions) – but he was good at storytelling.

“Most writers are serial failures,” he says.

Speaking about his own success – he notes humbly that many celebrated Scottish writers blazed a path for him but did not achieve the international recognition he did.

He says he is inspired by bad fiction, rather than by what other great authors have written (one of his favourite books is Ulysses by Irishman James Joyce):

“When I read a shite book, I tell myself, I am going to take that c-nt down.”

Renton, couldn’t have said it better.

 

 

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.)

Boned: Here’s another reason why newspapers are losing readers…

Having just completed the 14 km City2Sea race on Sunday I was given a copy of The Sunday Age for my troubles.

Sweaty and tired and looking forward to a big breakfast, I turned to the front page of the newspaper which had as its headline: “End transimssion” with a granny photo of Channel 10 newsreader Helen Kapalos.

Expecting a big story about a financial crisis or collapse – indeed perhaps the end of the TV network’s own transmission – I read on and found that the story was about Kapalos losing her job as part of network cutbacks.

Reading like a suspense novel plot, the story describes how “within minutes of bidding viewers a good weekend and walking off set, Kapalos was grabbed on the arm by the personal assistant of Ten’s head of news, Dermot O’Brien, and instructed not to leave the office”.

After a tense stand-off, Kapalos was allowed to return to her computer to retrieve her holiday booking – it just so happened her sacking occurred on the day she was due to fly out for a holiday in the US.

Now I don’t wish to make light of anybody losing their job – having been “boned” myself in the past I know how it feels  – but I have to ask: was a newsreader losing her job the biggest and most important story of the weekend in Melbourne or Australia or anywhere for that matter?

Was it the biggest story of the weekend and did it warrant front page courage?

I bet Kapalos herself was surprised to find news of her boneing (for overseas readers, “boneing” is an Australian term referring to getting fired) her photo splashed across the front-page of Melbourne’s only Sunday broadsheet newspaper.

It’s the kind of story that should have warranted a side column somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, not the front page or third page or even the fifth page.

Apart from Kapalos herself (who will surely be fielding many job offers on her return from her overseas holiday), and some of her fans who enjoyed watching her read out the day’s news items in her rather sultry, whispery voice (I didn’t mind her interrupting my Thursday night viewing of Law & Order with a news update) this is not a story that warranted the front-page splash it received.

Yes I know Channel 10 is in trouble (and that’s the bigger story) but it’s the network’s own fault really –  have you watched some of the dreck they have come out with lately: Being Lara Bingle, The Shire, Everybody Dance now? All of them rubbish. All them failures. All of them axed!

As for the story of Kapalos’s dismissal this was a just another example of how the TV networks operate- indeed anyone who has enjoyed a television show on the commercial networks only to see it suddenly “boned” from the schedule will know they are a ruthless bunch.

You could also read into the “misplacement” of this story as a sign that’s its not just the internet that’s too blame for newspapers’ falling readerships and advertising woes.

Is The Sunday Age a learned, high-brow broadsheet or is it re-making itself into another tabloid? Or perhaps it is having an identity crisis?

Surely, there had to be a bigger story on Sunday then Kapalos getting boned?

First of all it was Remembrance Day, so that might have warranted a front page  – after all there are Australian soliders involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and risking their lives on a daily basis.

And there are many other local and national issues that would have deserved front-page priority.

Instead, The Sunday Age has gone for a front page story which (with the greatest respect) is what you’d expect on the front cover of the Herald Sun.

And I wouldn’t have a problem with it being on the front cover of the Herald Sun because those sorts of stories are its bread and butter- attention grabbing headlines about attractive news anchors being pulled aside after their last news broadcast and told to pack their bags.

The Sunday Age is a weighty newspaper and deserves weightier stories on its front page.

Is it any wonder its readership has fallen around 15% in the space of year!

Update to this story: As I predicted, Helen Kapalos is reportedly being courted by a host of TV networks since being boned by Channel 10, which only re-affirms what I wrote about this never being an important enough story to warrant the front page of a major newspaper.

From city 2 sea: A different kind of Melbourne racing carnival

The alarm goes off at 6am on a chilly Sunday morning.

Giddy up!

Today I’m running the City2Sea, a 14 kilometre charity run through the streets of Melbourne, starting in the CBD and ending at St Kilda Beach.

For the last two months, I’ve been getting up at the ungodly, still-dark hour of 5.30am to train before work – and I feel ready.

A quick nappy change (the baby’s, not mine), a small bowl of muesli , a kiss goodbye to the sleepy wife and I’m off, driving along Oak Park’s quiet suburban streets on my way into the city.

The radio says it is 9 degrees celsius  (in November!) and I have the heater cranked up in the car.

It’s a even colder in the city where I park, munch half a banana, and set off up Flinders Street for the start line just off St Kilda Road.

Runners emerge from everywhere, with their race numbers pinned to their shirts, they’re easy to spot. Also on the streets, late night/early morning revellers outside 7-Elevens and the homeless. A man outside Flinders Station asks me for change and I literally don’t have any. Just a bank note stuffed into my sock for a bite to eat after the race.

I meet up with my friend Jonny outside the colossal, fortress-like grey walls of the National Gallery of Victoria and we jokingly discuss strategies for elbowing people out the way at the congested start line.

The vibe is great, surrounded by fellow Melburnians of all ages, shapes and creeds chatting away, stretching, waiting to test themselves.

Music belts out and a loudspeaker barks out instructions and bits of motivation. Later the same voice tells us repeatedly to “get into our pens”. Since when did we become farm animals?

Today is also Remembrance Day and we listen to a short address about the bravery of Australian troops in the war and listen to the bugle poignantly play “The last post”.

The sky is clear and the air crisp as we stand in silence and listen to the sorrowful tune.

Afterwards, as we wait for the start gun, Jonny fumes at all the runners with their ipods strapped to their arms and plugged into their ears.

He was under the impression these devices were banned.

“I might have to steal someone’s headphones,” he chirps, clearly not impressed.

A lady in front of me has two ipods, one strapped on each arm. Is she using them as weights I wonder or planning to teleconference while running?

Someone is lined up in their tuxedo. Another as a super-hero with red cape (not superman, they’re advertising a gym or slimming plan I think).

The gun goes off and we’re off, racing under a canopy of trees down St Kilda Road past some of Melbourne’s most expensive apartments blocks shimmering in glass and metal and old Victorian and Edwardian heritage buildings transformed into royal societies and restaurants.

People jostle past. Apologies are muttered. A woman runs past me actually holding hand weights in her hands.

A man on a Sunday stroll with his dogs asks a race official how he gets across the road.

“When you see  gap.”

We pass the grey stone bricks of the Victorian army barracks, where a rock band all dressed in naval white is pumping out tunes and people cheer at us from the pavement.

At the base of one of the apartment blocks, in a cafe, a bald guy with a newspaper is having breakfast, oblivous, it seems, to the sea of joggers flying past.

The “1km” sign looms up in no time and I start thinking – “this will be a breeze!”

Some people are walking already and I wonder – just how much training have they done?

Already I’m thinking my next race should be a 21 kilometre half-marathon.

A few kilometres later – I’m managing about six minutes a km – and we’re in Albert Park, where they hold the Australian Grand Prix in January.

The sun is blazing, it’s a gorgeous clear blue sunny day and Melbourne’s impressive “Manhattan” shimmers in the distance. The city looks majestic from my point of view and I feel grateful to be fit, to be running and to be a small part of this metropolis.

But there’s absolutely no shade and as I slow down for a cup of water, I’m thinking pehaps 14 kilometres is more than enough after all!

A black swan has waddled across from Lake Albert and is calmly eating grass at the side of the road. A bad omen? Don’t these things chase and bite?

A woman runs past in the opposite direction. Perhap’s she’s finished already and doing the race backwards.

An elderly man next to me is doing a kind of half run/half walk, dragging his legs forward and moaning with each breath. I’m worried he might not make it (and not just to the finish line).

We pass the main Grand Prix grandstand and I look up at my reflection in the glass. Never mind the man with the funny running style, it looks like I’m hardly moving at all or possibly going backwards.

The heat, the heat.

This course may be as flat as a pancake, but there’s absolutely no shade. I look for tall, wide joggers.

I see what I think its the first ambulance at the 9 kilometre mark and assume the odds favour heart-attacks well into these races. Indeed the frequency of first-aid care picks up from here on in. God help you if you collapse at the 2 km mark, you’re finished!

The “Village People” are playing in front of a tent promising to cool you down with water sprays and I detour in, but the misty stuff hardly penetrates, taking seconds off my time, which has now stretched beyond the six minute per kilometre mark.

Rats!

A few minutes later I’m forced to slow down again for a glass of gatorade. Everyone crowds in grabbing for a cup.

Have you ever tried drinking gatorade while running? Luckily I remember it’s gatorade and don’t throw it across my face as I did with a cup of water earlier.

We exit the park and head down Fitzroy Street, St Kilda with its cafes and restaurants and art deco apartments. Three guys on a balcony are drinking beers and waving at us. Bastards!

A little further along a couple of down-and-outs are gathered together with cheap grog, sitting on the kerb shouting out words of encouragement:

“$20 for a blow-job,” shouts out one with a leathery, unwashed face, clearly not fazed by the presence of three uniformed police officers watching from across the street.

“They’re not doing any harm,” I hear a guy tell the cops, who are clearly not impressed.

Not sure the mothers and daughters running behind me will appreciate these words of encouragement either.

I’m just glad for something to divert my thoughts.

“$20 for a blow-job,” he repeats again and again until I am out of earshot.

The 12 km sign appears.

And then it’s a left turn down the esplanade with the beach on my right and beyond it the calm blue waters of Port Phillip Bay. A guy paddles serenely by standing on a paddle ski. Cyclists ring their bells and whizz past on the track alongside the road.

Two “smurfs” run past me.

And then a man in a sequined purple dress and wig.

People holding babies and dogs on leads wave and shout out words of encouragement.

A lady smiles at me: “You’re doing well” she says and I think: I must look pretty bad.

The man I thought might have a heart attack at the half-way stage surges past me and out of sight, still moaning. Bastard!

And then the finish line looms. I pick up speed and cruise over the line in an hour and 27 minutes. Not too shabby.

I grab a medal and thrust it over my head. To the finisher, the spoils.

We ditch the free yoghurt on offer and hobble off to Acland Street for well-earned full English breakfast with all the trimmings.

Melbourne transport officers: the ‘Gestapo’ or the ‘Miami Vice’ experience

My wife and I now live in Melbourne, but a couple of years ago we were just visiting from Sydney on holiday.

We caught a tram from Essendon (a suburb north west of the Melbourne CBD) into the city for some sightseeing and lunch. My wife had a concession card because she was a student in Sydney at the time and so she bought a concession ticket on the tram. I bought a normal adult ticket.

The tram trundled on towards the city. A little while later two men got on and sat opposite us on the tram.

One of the men was bald or had a closely-shaved head, was wearing sun-glasses, a white t-shirt jeans and a zipped-up beige leather jacket looking as if he’d just finished shooting a scene from Miami Vice (you remember the 1980s cops show with Don Johnson).

He looked at us.

We looked at him.

The tram continued on its way.

A few minutes later, he nonchalantly unzipped his jacket to reveal an FBI-like badge dangling from his neck and announces to us and the tram: “Melbourne transport police – ticket inspection”.

We got into trouble because though my wife had a valid New South Wales student card it was not valid in Victoria (Australia’s different state rules are a topic for a whole separate blog post) so she was not actually entitled to a student discount on the fare.

We explained that we were visiting and were unaware that my wife was not allowed a student ticket.

Mr Miami Vice believed us and we got off with a warning rather than a hefty fine.

But the incident stuck in my head principally because of the demeanour and dress of the undercover ticket inspector, who had clearly watched too many cop shows.

He was a ridiculous caricature and I always laugh at the memory of him coolly unzipped his leather jacket to reveal his Melbourne transport officer badge.

As I mentioned earlier, we now live in Melbourne and I have come to experience, vicariously anyway, the other persona of the train and tram transport police.

They’re officially called “authorised officers” and employed by the Victorian government.

They wear uniforms and demeanours that remind me of the Gestapo or maybe the secret police of East Germany with a twist of a 1980s fashion faux pas thrown in as well.

Their jackets are made of grey plastic-like material with black trimming and they usually roam the trains in packs, wearing scowls.

If you live in Melbourne and ride the train or trams regularly, you will more than likely have encountered them.

Now I’ll say upfront that some of them are courteous and wear a smile, but many of them are surely picked for their menacing looks and deadly stares.

Like the secret police, they enjoy playing mind games by boarding the train, huddling at the entrance and doing nothing but looking across at the passengers until at some point (perhaps a signal transmitted directly to the brain) and they announce “ticket inspection, please have your tickets ready”.

Invariably there is someone who does not have a ticket.

Immediately they are surrounded by a group of ticket inspectors who begin the interrogation. Everyone looks, you can’t help yourself.

Then they escort the passenger off the train and as it pulls out the station you stare out the window and see the poor passenger surrounded by these figures in grey and black with notepads, glares and fingers pointing.

And there’s a part of you that wonders if these passengers will ever be seen or heard from again, especially if they refuse to comply or provide adequate proof of identification.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence, perhaps it’s the case the most people who fare evade are minorities with a darker shade of skin colour, but seems that if you’re a person of colour you’re more than likely to be hauled off the train by an authorised officer and asked to provide incontrovertible proof of who you are.

Not speaking english or being a teenager are too other reasons to be attract their attention.

Lately there have been a lot of inspections on the Craigieburn line – the line I ride every week day – sometimes during rush hour, but always once the train has emptied out and we’re heading into the suburbs.

Once a bald, nasty-looking inspector tried to put the fear of God into two teenage boys who were sitting with their skate-boards and baseball caps turned the wrong way round.

“How will you feel if I told your parents you got a $70 fine…” were the words I distinctly heard him utter with the kindness of a rattlesnake.

Scouring the internet I have come across some disturbing evidence which confirms that there certainly are some bad eggs in the ranks of Melbourne’s authorised officers.

I found an ABC news broadcast from 2010 showing authorised officers assaulting passengers in a bulletin called “Melbourne’s thuggish ticket inspectors”.

Digging further I found it was based on a damning report by the Victorian ombudsman, which found that in around 30,000 instances where infringement notices were issued, nearly half were withdrawn.

The report also provides a number of examples of what has happened to some commuters who have found themselves under attack from these rogue officers including this case:

Incident 1: 9 March 2010 – Ringwood Railway Station

On 9 March 2010 an authorised officer in plain clothes pushed two youths from a moving train onto the platform at the Ringwood Railway Station. This incident was anonymously reported to the department. The officer was part of a four person patrol. The officer resigned. Following a police investigation, the officer was charged with two counts of recklessly causing injury. File notes disclosed that the officer admitted in his pre-authorisation interview to having a speeding fine; obtaining a learner permit by making a false statement; obtaining an identity card by lying; and shoplifting.

You can watch what happened via this CCTV footage provided by the ombudsman.

There are numerous other examples in the report.

Anyway, you should know your rights if you end up in the hands of an authorised officer.

They are summarised here on the Public Transport Victoria website.

If you get hauled off the train, always ask to see their badge and ID and write down their names.

Make a note of any threats made against you and never hand over any money.

Always keep in mind that authorised officers are required under law to act with the “highest degree of integrity and professionalism” at all times”

This applies whether they are acting out a Miami Vice fantasy or dressed like a character from the Gestapo.