Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.

In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)