Friday, 17 November 2017

Vanished Melbourne (Part 2)

In my Melbourne Historical app (sadly no more), I had a category called "Vanished". This listed several memorable Melbourne buildings which tragically had been demolished. Last post I shared three of them with you; here are three more...

St Patrick's Hall at right. Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

4. St Patrick's Hall

Lost birthplace of the Victorian Parliament

Opened in 1849, St Patrick's Hall served a number of handy purposes in its early years: as a meeting place for the Irish society which had built it, as a school, and as the venue for an exhibition of industry and agriculture long before the Royal Exhibition Building was built.

In 1851, however, it took on a much more prestigious role as the first home of the Victorian Parliament. Or more precisely, the home of the Legislative Council, the partly-elected chamber which later became the upper house of a more democratic legislature.

After hosting a grand ball to mark the formal separation of Victoria from the territory of New South Wales, the building was extensively renovated for its new purpose. In November 1851, the politicians moved in.

They wouldn't be there for long. In 1856 a new Parliament House was built on Spring Street to serve the two houses which had just been returned at Victoria's first fully democratic election. The Legislative Council moved out to join the new Legislative Assembly in its new home.

With a handy sum of rent money jingling in their pockets, the St Patrick's Society modernised the hall by adding a new three-storey facade which brought it up to the line of the street.

Over the next century the hall slowly fell into disuse, as other venues arose to serve the citizens' needs. St Patrick's Hall was demolished in 1957.

There are two reminders of the hall still present today. One is St Patrick's Alley off Little Bourke Street, which ran alongside the building. The other is the former Speaker's Chair, which now stands within Queen's Hall in Parliament House.

Nowadays the site of St Patrick's Hall is occupied by the offices of the Law Institute of Victoria, a fitting tribute to the vanished building which once held Victoria's first lawmakers.

Visit the site: 470 Bourke St, Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

5. Stewart Dawson's Corner

Once a popular meeting place, now forgotten

From the late 19th century to 1928, the northwest corner of the intersection of Collins and Swanston Streets was known as Stewart Dawson's Corner.

Dawson was a successful British jeweller and watchmaker who emigrated to Australia in 1886. He soon built up successful branches of his business in Australia and New Zealand, with Stewart Dawson's Building housing his Melbourne emporium.

The footpath in front of the building became a prime place for people to meet (perhaps because of the proximity of the Melbourne Town Hall clock across the street), second only to "under the clocks" at Flinders Street Station. As many young men loitered here, this spot was also teasingly known as Puppy Dog Corner.

For decades, everyone in Melbourne knew where Stewart Dawson's corner was. Then in 1932 Stewart Dawson's Building was demolished to make way for the impressive Depression-busting Manchester Unity Building.

Stewart Dawson's Corner is long forgotten in Melbourne. However, if you'd like to stand on a live and kicking Stewart Dawson's Corner, you can do so at the intersection of Lambton Quay and Willis Street in Wellington, New Zealand. Sadly, the 116-year-old branch of Stewart Dawson's at that location moved out of its long-term home in late 2016.

Visit the site: Corner of Collins & Swanston Sts, Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
6. Theatre Royal

A demolished theatre, once a byword for scandal

Melbourne's Theatre Royal opened in 1855 with Richard Sheridan's comic play The School for Scandal.

This may have been an omen - before long the theatre gained an unsavoury reputation for vice, especially prostitution, and respectable folk avoided it like the plague.

The most famous act to appear here in its early years was Lola Montez, the infamous courtesan who'd once been the mistress of the King of Bavaria.

Lola arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to find the city still humming from the discovery of gold a few years before.

Taking to the Theatre Royal stage, she performed her notorious 'Spider Dance'. This faux Spanish folk dance involved her energetically searching her skirts for an invisible spider, then stamping it to death.

The response of local newspaper critics ranged from hostile to lukewarm. The Argus described it as “utterly subversive of all ideas of public morality”; while The Age was initially impressed, until a second reviewer decided the dance was “simply ridiculous”.

After the theatre burned down in 1872, it was swiftly rebuilt. Leaving its dubious reputation behind, the Theatre Royal became a popular venue for plays and musicals over the next 60 years.

The Theatre Royal was demolished in 1933, to be replaced by a department store. Its address is now the site of the Target Centre shopping arcade.

Although Melbourne's Theatre Royal is no more, you can still visit a 19th century Theatre Royal in Hobart, and another in Castlemaine in country Victoria.

Visit the site: 232 Bourke St, Melbourne.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Vanished Melbourne (Part 1)

In my Melbourne Historical app (now sadly no more), I had a category called "Vanished". This listed several memorable Melbourne buildings which had tragically been demolished. I'd like to share them with you; here are the first three...

Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

1. Cole's Book Arcade

A famous book emporium whose story is now concluded

One of Melbourne's best-remembered vanished buildings, Cole's Book Arcade was a prominent part of the city's life from 1883 to 1929.

Strong-willed proprietor Edward Cole, a firm believer in the educational and transformative powers of books, built a vast book emporium which eventually stretched between Bourke and Collins Streets. As part of this expansion, Cole paved and roofed Howey Place, a previously dingy alley off Little Collins Street.

Cole's sprawling shop beneath its skylit glass roof sold more than books, trading in confectionery and a vast array of household ornaments. It also contained diversions such as stuffed animals, funny mirrors and a changing parade of exhibitions.

Sadly, this unique emporium closed in 1929, and the building was demolished soon after.

Nowadays the Bourke Street Mall site is the home to upmarket department store David Jones, while Howey Place is lined by fashion boutiques. However, you can still see EW Cole's ornamental roof over Howey Place today.

Visit the site: 299 Bourke St, Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of the
State Library of Victoria.
2. Federal Coffee Palace

A teetotal hotel which eventually turned to drink

Like the extant Hotel Windsor in its early years, the Federal Coffee Palace was an alcohol-free hotel whose owners believed in the temperance cause.

It opened in 1888, neatly timed for the influx of visitors attending the great Centennial Exhibition of that year at the Royal Exhibition Building.

Unfortunately, its owners' high-minded ideals were unable to compete with the proximity of various pubs, and in 1897 the hotel gained a liquor licence and became the Federal Palace Hotel, then later the Federal Hotel.

The Federal Coffee Palace was decorated in a flamboyant jumble of styles which outdid even the usual Victorian-era excesses. An arcaded foyer with a glass roof soared four storeys in height, and the grand staircase was decorated in red and white marble. Outside, its lofty domed tower was a prominent landmark in those low-rise days.

Unfortunately, the Federal didn't survive the advent of sophisticated modern hotels serving the jetsetters of the post-World War II era. It was demolished in 1973.

The beautiful hotel was succeeded by a bland concrete office tower, which is now giving way to a new 47-storey apartment building.

If you want to drink an espresso in memory of the grand edifice of temperance which once stood here, head a few blocks east to the cafe beneath the Elizabeth Street colonnade of the GPO Building. Its name? Federal Coffee Palace.

Visit the site: 555 Collins St, Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

3. Fish Market

A monumental market that met its maker

Whenever Melburnians bemoan the destruction of the city's grand buildings of the past, an example that always gets a mention is the Fish Market. This 200 metre long building stretched along Flinders Street, its rear curving along the railway viaduct behind the site.

Opened in 1892 upon the closure of the previous fish market next to Flinders Street Station, the market stored and sold fish, poultry, rabbits and other game. Despite this mundane function, it was an elaborate expression of civic pride, with a central clock tower, an impressive arched entry, and conical towers dotted along its length.

In the late 1950s, the market's functions were relocated to a large new site on Footscray Road, West Melbourne. The Fish Market building was demolished in 1959.

Nowadays the site is occupied by the Northbank Place commercial and residential development, completed in 2009. There's something piscine in its curving walls and steel ribs, a tribute perhaps to its memorable predecessor.

Visit the site: 545 Flinders St, Melbourne.

Next post: three more demolished Melbourne gems, including a scandalous theatre and the Victorian Parliament's forgotten first home...

Friday, 3 November 2017

Łódź, Poland: From Industrial Revolution to Movies

I visited Poland courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

Last year I revisited one of Poland's most overlooked cities, Łódź (pronounced 'woodge').

In the centre of the country, Poland's third-largest city was the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution in what was then a province of the Russian Empire. As a result, it has a lot of interesting industrial architecture, from repurposed factory complexes to tycoons' luxurious former homes.

It's more noted nowadays as the hub of the Polish film industry. Because Warsaw was in ruins at the end of the Second World War, movie-makers regrouped here after the conflict.

Cinematic highlights for visitors include the Cinematography Museum housed within a former mansion; the National Film School where Roman Polański once studied; and the animation museum of Se-ma-for Studios.

Here's a quick tour...

1. Start your visit with the Cinematography Museum. There are two attractions here: the extensive collection of movie memorabilia, from early stereoscopic film viewers to sets and props from recent productions; and the beautiful mansion it's housed in, once the home of a Łódź textile king.

2. From the museum it's a short walk to the National Film School, spread across a number of buildings. It doesn't hold regular tours, but it's possible to pre-book one in English. This is the place where greats such as Polański, Kieślowski and Wajda got their start, and there are plaques to these ex-students on a set of stairs where they sat between classes.

3. Next stop is Se-ma-for Studios, one of Poland's top animation creators. Its Animation Museum has a great range of puppets which have been used over the decades in Polish animated movies, including recent international co-productions. It's fun to look through the changing designs, even if you're not familiar with the productions.

4. A great place to end is Lodz's main street, ul Piotrowska. Here in the footpath is the Walk of Fame, embedded Hollywood-style stars with the names of famous Polish film-makers in them. Because Piotrowska is full of good restaurants and bars, it's a good spot to finish your visit over an excellent Polish beer.

It's worth staying over, but it's also possible to visit Łódź as a day trip by train from Warsaw (though it'd be a long and busy day). You can find out more about the city and its attractions at the official Łódź tourism website.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Help! Beatles Tour of Hamburg (With Ukulele)

On this trip I was hosted by the German National Tourist Office.

"There's nowhere in the world they played more than Hamburg," says Stefanie Hempel as we stand in the German city's Beatles-Platz. "Here the foundation stone was laid for their career."

She's right. Hamburg was where the Beatles got their start, playing a huge number of gigs - Hempel estimates it as 300 concerts over two years.

Her tribute to their German residency is a specialist tour of the St Pauli neighbourhood around the Reeperbahn, the spine of Hamburg's famous red-light and entertainment district.

She punctuates stops at the sites of Beatles venues past and present, by playing Beatles songs - on her ukulele.

It may be a far cry from the Beatles' guitars or even George Harrison's sitar, but it seems to work. The compact instrument allows Hempel to belt out a tune, vocals included, with little preparation. Then we're off along St Pauli's dingy daytime streets to the next stop.

At Beatles-Platz itself, she sings In My Life. Then at the former Top Ten Club (see photo top right), she rocks a version of sea shanty My Bonnie, which the early Beatles performed with Tony Sheridan.

In a back street courtyard, we locate the doorway which John Lennon leaned against for the cover of his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll album...

... then we pause by the site of the former Bambi Kino, a cinema where the Beatles were boarded within a shabby storeroom between gigs:

One of the nearby places they performed at was the Indra, where they first used the Beatles name and initially acted as the backing band for a stripper (Hempel performs the Chuck Berry number Rock and Roll Music here):

Next is the Kaiserkeller, perhaps the Hamburg venue most linked with The Beatles in popular memory. It's still rocking:

And finally, we stand behind the site of the long-vanished Star Club, to admire this plaque listing the impressive array of talented artists who took the stage during its short life:

This is where Stefanie goes out with a bang, belting out I Saw Her Standing There. I join in the "Ooooh" bit in the chorus, of course. All you need is love, right?

Find out more and make bookings at Hempel's Beatles Tour website.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Melbourne Creative Landmark: The Nicholas Building

I originally wrote this profile as part of a walking tour submission to Melbourne's City of Literature office. With its consent, I'm sharing it with you...

This 1926 office building is at the heart of Melbourne’s creative traditions.

It was built on the fortunes of the Aspro company which manufactured aspirin, and for a long time it was a hub of Flinders Lane’s fashion industry, or ‘rag trade’.

There are still aspects of that trade active here today, including a company making buttons using traditional methods.

However, in recent years the building has broadened its creative activities, becoming what’s called a ‘vertical laneway’.

Like Melbourne’s famous ground-level lanes, a vertical laneway is composed of numerous small-scale businesses – located in a high-rise building.

Literature is a strong element of the Nicholas Building’s mix. This is where convicted bank robber Gregory Roberts wrote the novel Shantaram, based partly on his fugitive life in Mumbai.

It’s also the long-time home of Collected Works, Melbourne’s top poetry bookshop.

Walk to the list of tenants in the beautiful barrel-vaulted arcade, and look for enterprises that welcome visitors.

You’ll find the poetry bookshop, art galleries exhibiting local artists, the button shop selling its attractive creations, and other outlets selling handcrafted fashion and gifts.

Take some time to ascend in the old-fashioned lifts which retained attendants well into the 21st century, and explore the creativity of this extraordinary place.

As you leave the Nicholas Building, cross the street and take a moment to admire its impressive facade. Covered with terracotta tiles, it was influenced by the Chicago School and was at the cutting edge of Melbourne architecture in its day.

The Nicholas Building still stands out among its neighbours along Swanston Street. It may be a little wrinkled with the passage of time, but it has great bones.

The Nicholas Building is located at 37 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Joo Chiat & Katong Food Tour: Singapore on a Plate

On this trip I was hosted by BetelBox Tours, the Singapore Tourism Board and the Raffles Singapore.

When I visited Singapore in 2015, I went on an excellent food tour of the city's Joo Chiat and Katong neighbourhoods.

Operated by BetelBox Tours, a company connected with a local hostel, it covered the food of Singapore’s largest architecture conservation district: an area associated with Malay, Peranakan Straits Chinese, and Eurasian communities.

The tour was a pleasant walk through a low-rise area, and the food was great and plentiful. It was fun, sociable, and with some interesting social history woven into the strolls between food stops.

It was also top value for money. Keen foodies as we were, the group I joined could hardly have polished off the vast quantity of edibles presented to us. From memory, the guide took leftovers from our final banquet back to the hostel as a treat for the backpackers.

Here are some images from the tour for your enjoyment...

Delicious! And colourful!

Find out more about the Joo Chiat / Katong Food walk and make bookings at this link.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Portmeirion, Wales: The Village by Night

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

In September I had the good fortune to revisit a place I haven't seen for 25 years: the beautiful village of Portmeirion in Wales.

Not that it's a real village. Rather it's a confection of Italianate buildings and facades, put in place over decades by the late Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

The architect wanted to show how architecture and nature could work harmoniously together; so he rescued demolished statuary and facades from around Britain, reinstalling them here.

The result is a beautiful though slightly odd village which feels too sublime to be real: a fairy-tale place.

It was this curious quality which led actor/director Patrick McGoohan to film his surreal mystery-drama TV series The Prisoner here (below I'm wearing a characteristic badge of the Village's inhabitants in the series).

By chance the 50th anniversary of its first screening fell in September, and it's still a spectacular viewing experience - I recommend it to you.

Portmeirion is mostly visited by day-trippers, to whom it's open during daylight hours. But if you stay overnight in the hotel or one of its rooms scattered through the Village, you can roam around freely after dark.

This is what Narrelle and I did, and were rewarded with a magical experience. The sky was clear, the stars were out, and Williams-Ellis' remarkable creation was even more beautiful than ever.

After seeing these photos I took on the night, I hope you agree.
As the inhabitants of the Village were fond of saying in The Prisoner, "Be seeing you!"

And a small additional note: this post was written in the grand John Rylands Library in Manchester. A beautiful space for composition, I think you'll agree:

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review: Henry V at the Pop-up Globe, Melbourne

The slogan of the Globe Theatre replica currently adorning Melbourne's Kings Domain is "Shakespeare like it's 1614."

This seems like a missed opportunity to me; I would've gone with "Party like it's 1599." But I'm a turn of the century kinda guy, even if it's the 16th century we're talking about.

Whatever. The point is, there's an excellent scaled-down version of the Bard's famous venue parked next to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with a repertoire of four plays: Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

It's Henry V that Narrelle and I have come to see on an overcast Sunday afternoon which is tentatively threatening to rain. It shouldn't be a problem, as we have seats beneath the O-shaped roof, but the "groundlings" who get in cheap and stand in front of the stage are beneath the open sky and are not allowed umbrellas.

Even though it's a history play and might therefore be assumed to be weighty fare, I instantly realise that it's a great choice for this venue. For a start, the Chorus, the narrator character who introduces the play and changes of location, is perfectly in his element here. When he asks us...
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... we can look above us and see the "wooden O" of which he speaks.

And it turns out, the "imaginary forces" he pleads for us to use are up to the job, aided by sound and motion upon the thrust stage. The battles with the French army, when they come, are noisy and clanging, aided at one point by the keen of bagpipes.

Despite this sound and fury, to which the audience lends wholeheartedly its support via cheers and clapping, the quiet scenes hold their own. When Henry and others reflect upon the coming deaths before the battle, Shakespeare's thoughtful words are received with respectful attention by the audience. There's true revulsion, too, at Henry's later war crime, his order to kill the French prisoners.

Still, the venue - with nothing like a fourth wall, especially given its daylight performances - invites a broad performance of this history play, and that's what we get. Comedy scenes are played up, stirring calls to arms are cheered, and cast members often walk through the audience, interacting with the groundlings.

The only element I'd question is the overwrought accents and highly effete mannerisms of the French, along with a jokey suggestion of the Dauphin's homosexual desires. Though this treatment has been used in other productions, it seem to harness prejudices that would be best left in the 16th century. We don't need to see the French portrayed as "unmanly" in order to recognise them as the baddies of Shakespeare's piece.

Overall, it's great fun to see the play in the setting for which it was written, and a delight to see audience members (many of them young) enjoying theatre so fully.

There are plenty of seating options from basic to more comfortable, but you can't beat the standing-room-only groundling tickets, which go for about $20. I spent the first half of the play seated, but the second half leaning on the stage, with actors whirling about just above me - and it was great fun.

The time went quickly and I was glad I'd forsaken my seat for the best spot in the house. If you choose this option though, take a raincoat - there's a lot of fake blood splashing about, and it might end up on you.

The Pop-up Globe's season continues in Melbourne to 12 November 2017. Find details and make bookings at its website.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2017

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which pushes boundaries. As Narrelle Harris and I were in Britain for most of this year's fest, we've only had a chance to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what we've seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

The Yonder
Until 30 September 2017, Lithuanian Club

Title and Deed: Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

It’s a challenge attending the Fringe Festival when you’ve returned home from the UK just the previous evening.

Fortunately, a great show can keep you alert even when your body’s circadian rhythms are staring dry-eyed into the stage lights and on to infinity.

Sadly though, the first show of the evening is not that show.

The Yonder, a “stupid race through deep space” is sadly just that. Three actors (Elizabeth Davie, Ezel Doruk and Shannan Lim, pictured above) play out a science fiction farce via tropes that were already outdated by the '80s.

The gay love sub-plot gives the best moments in a show that otherwise lacks pace, punch or originality. Otherwise it makes me miss the genius of the 4 Noels, or Rama Nicholas, who's so ably taken up where they left off.

But hurrah for Title and Deed, exactly the tonic my jetlagged brain requires. Keith Brockett (pictured left) plays a traveller, a stranger in our land – a man in transit in the world and in life.

He tells us stories of an unidentified home and a half understood ‘here’ that render both places odd and liminal.

Brockett delivers Will Eno’s script with Wildean deftness, superb timing, and a fine sense of its absurdity and pathos.

It’s a performance which is funny, clever and often surprisingly contemplative. It’s also full of the joy of words and imagery, drawing together meanings and contrasts.

My head was full of three weeks of England and Wales; so the themes of countries, cultures and life being strange places where we are all lost sometimes was resonant.

Kudos to director Laura Maitland too. Kudos to everyone. Title and Deed is charming, funny, a delight.

I shall now resume staring into lights until I can see infinity.

(Oh, there it is).

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

The Interpenetration of Opposites
Until 30 September 2017, Howey Downstairs

The Basement Tapes
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

In one of PG Wodehouse's short stories, a character decries novels which feature "married couples who find life grey, and can't stick each other at any price."

I try to banish this amusing line from my mind as a recorded voiceover strikes up an argument between an apparent couple later in life, arguing over the everyday grind.

But The Interpenetration of Opposites is, in fact, that kind of story. It actually starts years earlier, with the actors portraying friends at university who progress from uncertainties about their study choices to uncertainties about their life choices.

There's tension between the pursuit of personal fulfilment, versus grasping for hard-edged security. Which could make the spine of a good drama, if the actors were up to the challenge. Unfortunately there's a lot of flat and unconvincing delivery onstage, leavened by the occasional dash of sarcastic intonation.

It doesn't help that the cast make the already difficult sightlines worse by sitting in the front row when not performing. Overall it's hard to like any of the characters, or even to identify with them. Maybe Wodehouse had it right after all.

I have more luck in North Melbourne, after hopping the 57 tram back to Arts House for The Basement Tapes.

In the Warehouse venue behind it, a young woman (played by Stella Reid) is fossicking among a jumbled collection of household objects.

They turn out to be the contents of her deceased grandmother's basement, which she's sorting through.

Then she finds an old cassette tape which her grandma recorded her memories on, and things take a sharp turn into strangeness.

No spoilers here, but what follows is an intriguing - at times, frightening - piece of theatre that's expertly delivered. Reid gives us a sympathetic, emotionally awkward character who we warm to, adding weight to her fate.

Everything about The Basement Tapes is well judged - including Jane Yonge's direction and Thomas Lambert's sound, which adds an eerie depth to this small-scale production.

It's a perfect piece of Fringe theatre, the sort of work that stays with you for some time. Even if it gives you nightmares.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 1 October 2017. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.