Postcards from MONA

Occupying Melbourne

The mood at Occupy Melbourne yesterday was more Woodstock than Wall Street.

Economic conditions and employment rates in Australia are a world away from those in the US, let alone Greece. No Molotov cocktails on Swanston St then. Alongside posters exhorting ‘World revolution today!’ are others urging passers-by to smile, or reminding them that all you need is love.

There is something whimsical, almost bucolic about the Occupy Melbourne site: a waterside tent-village that everyone knows will soon disappear. City workers sip lattés a few metres away from earnest workshops on global peace and biodynamic farming. Children splash and giggle in what is usually a sterile ‘water feature’. It has to be said that the the tent-village, on aesthetic grounds alone, is arguably an improvement on the usual barren, sandy expanse of the City Square.

Will any of this make a difference? The pictures speak for themselves.

VENETIAN STONES

Ferrovia, the train station of Venice, is a fascist-era structure built in the 1930s. Wide, low, and faced with plain white stone, it is the only modernist building on the Grand Canal. It’s not a bad building, as fascist-era modernist railway stations go …

The twentieth century ambience of the station only makes the shock of stepping outside even greater. For a few seconds, two versions of the city shimmer and then fuse into one for ever: the actual stones of Venice around me, and the Venice-in-my-head that I’ve known and inhabited all my life. Like New York and Paris, especially, we’ve read so many books and seen so many movies set there, that they seem as familiar as one’s own home-town.

Gustave von Aschenbach sits in a deckchair on the Lido waiting for death, while Tadzio strolls on the beach before him. Johnny Depp walks through the Piazza San Marco in a dinner suit, an unlikely tourist, while Henry James watches from a window above. Nearby, Ruskin is painting a water colour. And Donald Sutherland as Casanova breaks through the roof of his prison and leaps to freedom, landing in a water-taxi with Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now. The city looks exactly as I always imagined, and this in itself is disconcerting.

‘It’s not a real city, just a place for tourists these days,’ I heard an American voice say as I walked down the steps of Ferrovia. But he was wrong. Even in summer, you can walk away from the main streets and crowds of tourists, away from the endless shops of Murano glass and the African hawkers with fake Gucci handbags spread out in front of them, and walk left and right and across a bridge and … suddenly you are in the Venice where the locals live. Washing hangs from lines high above a peaceful street. A poster advises that a creche’s opening times have changed. A gang of children play hide-and-seek on a building site. Two rabbis sit beneath an apple tree in a cobbled square, in murmured disputation.

Every city can teach us something about the urban environment, and Venice – of course – shows us what a city without cars would look like. One of the most extraordinary things about the city is the leaving of it – by vaporetto through the canals, across the choppy waters of the strait and into the harbour of Marco Polo Airport. How different from the familiar, grim drive out to Melbourne Airport. On my first night, I went to sleep imagining the freeway at home replaced by a stately grand canal, lined by poplar trees, with sleek water-taxis of polished wood making their way along, the drivers humming arias from Verdi …

(1 June 2011)

THE BRIDES OF KRZESLICE

Deep in the Polish countryside, surrounded by heathland, lakes and forests of birch and pine, lies the Palace of Krzeslice.

Wide lawns surround the house, but it cannot be seen from the road or nearby village, nestled in its own surrounding woodland of broad oak trees. Like Sleeping Beauty’s domain, it sits undisturbed, with the old iron gates overgrown by ivy thick as a child’s arm. Here I woke this morning (24 May 2011) and imagined all the brides of Krzeslice.

After lying in ruins for half a century, the Palace was restored in the 1990s as a country hotel. There are few guests (for Krzeslice is not on the way to anywhere), but it survives, even flourishes, as a venue for weddings from villages and towns in the surrounding area. The brides-to-be arrive every Saturday as nervous girls, surrounded by their giggling friends wearing too much makeup. After the ceremony and the celebrations they climb the stairs with their dark-suited husbands to the great bedroom over the castellated entrance. Early the next morning, the couple rise and drive off for their honeymoon before anyone else is awake.

There must have been over a thousand of these brides over the years in their gowns with with garlands of flowers round their heads. Before them, thousands more must have married at Krezlice, for a Palace has stood here since the 1600s at least, occupied by Polish and Prussian aristocracy. All this stopped when the Germans invaded in 1939. Then after the Russian takeover at the end of the war, the building fell into ruin till the 1990s, when the brides returned.

I imagined them, these legions of Krzeslice brides. The long-dead. Those married just this summer. And others – middle-aged now, in offices or shops or stuck in traffic while taking the children to school. Each one had woken in this room and, almost trembling with happiness, seen the morning light climbing through the slats of the shutters and realised that she would never feel like this again, that life was changed utterly.

The Midsomer Elopement

In 1841, in a village near Midsomer Norton in the west of England, a 17 year-old girl fell in love with the local schoolteacher. He was older than Mary, almost twice her age. Her parents wanted her to marry another man, but she wanted only Joseph. One morning, they ran away to Bristol and were married there in secret.

After a few days they returned, taking a steam train to the nearest town, then walked across the fields back to the village. The corn was waist-high and a skylark sang invisibly high above their head. As they approached, church bells began to ring. Word had reached their families that they were returning, and her father had asked for the bells to be rung, welcoming them home …

It sounds like the opening of a Thomas Hardy novel, but this is a true story of my great-great grandmother. It was a life like countless others in the nineteenth century, of course, with the exception that, near the end of her life, Mary decided to write her autobiography.

After her marriage, the mood of the story changes from Hardy to DH Lawrence. The couple moved from idyllic Wessex to industrial South Wales. Joseph soon died from TB and she was left with two young children. After a few years she married again, to a miner, and had more children. They lived in a row of cramped houses close by the coal mine, and to make ends meet, some of the children had to work underground with their father.

Within a few years, Mary was widowed again. A terrible explosion in the mine killed both her husband and one of her sons, not yet 10 years old. At the age of 36, with four children, another man asked for her hand. This third husband, too, was badly injured in a mining accident. There were more children, and by the twentieth century she was the matriarch of family that extended across the UK, the US and Australia.

Mary was only a few years younger than Queen Victoria and outlived her by many years. She was almost 100 when she wrote the story of her long life, and yet the most vivid memory – which shines on the page of the little volume – is of being a teenaged girl in the 1840s, just married, walking defiantly back across the fields, and then hearing the church bells ring to tell her that she was forgiven. That she was loved. That everything was alright. She was welcome home to the village where she had grown up, and where I am writing this today.

Gothic Melbourne

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, in a dark and nineteenth century mood.

Experimenting with the BW setting on my Leica DL2 on a winter’s morning.