pastimes


Earlier, I commented on a glorious pleasure of age: the afternoon nap with snoring. I have them now on an almost daily basis. But I have always envied the ability of an old professor to nod off during a lecture given by someone else. He or she may give an introduction, especially if it is a visitor, and then promptly fall asleep, with snores, for the full stretch of the lecture. At it’s close, he or she is then able to ask a question and end with words of thanks. So that is my next aim: the lecture nap. I have a few conferences coming up, so intend to use them for some serious practice.

For many a year I have been looking forward to this time of life: when an afternoon nap becomes irresistible. (One of the many pleasures of age, which I have been noting from time to time.) I mean not the occasional nod at a meeting, or the brief kip on a train. This is the real thing: lean back on a reclining chair, or perhaps on an old day-bed in the sun-room, close your eyes, and soon enough you are off. The trick is to snore, for without snoring it is not an old-fogey nap. Since I am not a natural snorer, I ensure that I lie on my back. The first low rumble in my throat indicates that sleep is about to come upon me. And about an hour later, I will wake with a snore, thinking, ‘I hope I didn’t snore too much and disturb people’. This is best done when visiting others and is a very appropriate act for grandfathers.

Today, on Mayday, we had the inaugural Stalin Prize film night. More than I expected gathered to watch the epic Fall of Berlin (winner in 1950). We drank vodka, soaking it up with various nibblies. Some extraordinary scenes, such as the one when a mad and rat-like Hitler meets prelates from the Vatican and promises them that he will save ‘Western civilisation’, or the Stakhanovite themes at the beginning, replete with the rich harvests and steel plants that smiling children simply visit on a whim, or indeed the calm, measured, albeit somewhat stiff Stalin himself, who calmly directs the Red Army with insight and brilliance. Not a few laughs, but most stayed rivetted to the end. After all, it is really is a love story between Alexei and Natasha.

fall-of-berlin

More film nights to come, with other winners of the Stalin Prize.

Strange how “Blue Skies in Beijing” is not a headline. If you believe international reports, Beijing is constantly shrouded in impenetrable smog, like being inside a cigarette. To be sure, it can get pretty bad on some occasions, but it can also be clear, crisp and sunny. Like now. I’ve been outside running each day, sucking in the air with pleasure.

As I settle into Beijing for a while, with much peace and quiet and opportunities for writing (and the pleasure of being in a country where the government is mainly the Communist Party), I have been enjoying my favourite restaurant. I treat myself to a meal there once or twice a week, while mostly eating in the dining halls.

One of the pleasures at this little eatery concerns some of the dishes. These include:

Husband and wife lung slice

Thread jujube in Sydney

Boiled salt bath chap

Sneak liver pointed

Beijing heaving

Needless to say, the only way to find out is to order them – in Chinese characters, as is the custom here.

In 1929, Elena Mikulina published a work called Emulation of the Masses and Stalin provided a forward. The work was written by a young, unknown writer, and caused many among the intelligentsia to mock the work. In reply, Stalin writes (with a biblical allusion or two):

We have hundreds and thousands of young and capable people who are striving with might and main to rise to the surface and contribute their mite to the common treasury of our work of construction. But their efforts are often unavailing, because they are very often kept down by the vanity of the literary “lights,” by the bureaucracy and callousness of some of our organisations, and, lastly, by the envy (which has not yet evolved into emulation) of men and women of their own generation. One of our tasks is to break down this blank wall and to give scope to the young forces, whose name is legion. My foreword to an inconsiderable pamphlet by an author unknown in the literary world is an attempt to take a step towards-accomplishing this task. I shall in the future, too, provide forewords only to simple and unassuming pamphlets by simple and unknown authors belonging to the younger forces. It is possible that this procedure may not be to the liking of some of the snobs. But what do I care? I have no fondness for snobs anyhow . . . (Works, vol. 12, p. 120)

That was the hottest ride I have ever done: 420 km in 4 days, from Armidale (up north) to Newcastle. On the hottest day, the temperature topped 45 degrees. On the others, it hovered between the high 30s and low 40s. That’s hot enough to melt the bitumen under my tyres. Day after day, I heard the clicking sound of tyres running over globules of molten bitumen. I saw strips and spots of the shiny black stuff all over the road. And from time to time, I had to stop for a while, when my vision blurred and I became light headed – drinking copious amounts of water and getting my body temperature down to reasonable levels. Today, on the last day, it was a cool 36 degrees, but only because of the gale-force headwind.

It began with a glorious train journey to Armidale:

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More than twenty years ago I lived in this town, a university town up north. The railway line to Armidale had been reopened under a Labor government, but I never had the chance to take the train. Now I had that chance:

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Beside the glorious railway station, the Gospel Hall (Brethren) still does its thing:

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I checked out old haunts, when my kids were little. At the house where we lived, I was blown away by the fully grown pine trees. I had planted two of them 23 years ago, knowing that they were slow growing. I nurtured them as seedlings and now they are grand trees:

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After a night in my tent in Armidale (where it is cool, even in summer), I set off through through countryside I still love:

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That’s an old signalman’s cottage on the railway line. After rolling up and down through the tableland, I had the breath-taking drop down the Moonbi mountain:

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Only to come across one of the highlights of the ride: the Moonbi chook (chicken):

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I have told stories about this chook, which adorns the park in the village of Moonbi. The village, you see, is a chook growing centre. I never thought I would see the big chook again, but it has a fresh coat of paint and sits there still, sagely surveying its fellows busily popping out bumnuts. After a stop in Tamworth, which boasts guitar-shaped pools (it is the country music capital of Australia), I was able to indulge in my fascination with abandoned cottages in the midst of nowhere:

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While coming to terms with the fact that the only thing blocking the blazing sun was my body and my bicycle:

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My next stop was the magical Murrurundi, which is almost as magical as Newcastle, only smaller:

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I tend to judge a place on whether I could stay a while and write. Murrurundi is such a place:

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The next day was the real scorcher: 45 degrees over 120 km. I was busted by the end. But not before I became intrigued by the regular appearance of bottles on the side of the road, filled with bright yellow or orange liquid:

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Yes, it’s piss. Drivers – truckies or whoever – seem to enjoy pissing into a bottle and tossing it out of the window. After viewing quite a number, I came to the conclusion that they either need to drink more water or see a doctor – soon.

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On the last day, with its stiff headwind, I rode on a new section of freeway – the Hunter Expressway. While I lament the fact that the billions spent on such constructions could produce some wonderful railways, I am also fascinated by the engineering. Local Aborigines were part of the planning and construction, with place names and routes marked by song lines. The treatment of water courses means they are now cleaner than they were before. And along the route much concern was given to animals and their need to cross the road. Along here there was very little road kill, for tunnels and overhead passageways had been constructed for their passing. I was intrigued by the possum bridge at one point:

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Too soon does the ride come to an end, even if you are knackered. So I tarried long in Jesmond Brush, in Newcastle itself. I had an early dinner, lit a fire and boiled a billy for tea:

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But eventually I wound my way home.

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