Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Shine a little light…

Jonie Mitchell told us decades ago that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. That’s especially true of electricity. Until you don’t have power you just don’t think about how much of your daily activities are made possible by flicking a switch. Power powers our whole day. This was made absolutely clear in the past week by losing power for over 24 hours as a result of Brisbane’s monster storm.

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My suburb was one of the worst hit and an early morning walk the following day showed why we were in the dark. Numerous huge trees had been uprooted bringing down power lines,  some ending up on cars and houses, and debris everywhere was closing streets and creating general chaos. The sheer randomness of the storm’s chaotic progress damaged tens of thousands of houses in its path, including taking the roofs off some riverside apartment blocks.

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A giant gum brings down power lines and puts paid to two cars and a house. 

Not having power means no early-morning visit to the gym, no morning cuppa, no opening the fridge door in case precious cold air escapes, no quick morning check of the email, no hot shower, no cooked breakfast, no ironed clothes, no train to work or play, chaos on the roads, etc etc etc. It was like the 2011 floods, when we lost power for five days, all over again.

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Twisted iron sheets and other debris from an apartment block close off riverside street. 

On the plus side, the family did a lot of talking. Strangers started conversations. I slept like a baby in the quiet, pitch black, cool, post-storm aftermath. Only the hum of generators and helicopters – yes, back so soon after the G20 invasion – disturbed the silence. I learned how much you can actually do with a gas ring, a few candles and a miner’s-style head torch. With the blackout extending into a second night and the prospect of another make-shift meal looming suddenly cheers echoed down the street. Lights flickered and appliances sprang to life like  fairy tale heroes awakening from a deep slumber. Outside, bulbs progressively popped on illuminating the dark hillside.

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More power lines bite the dust! 

Thank you electricity emergency workers for toiling non-stop around the clock, in the chaos and drizzle, with live power lines everywhere, to flick on the switch to our lives again. How lucky we are to live in a society where being without power is rare when countless millions worldwide live permanently without electricity.




Natanz keeps its cool

If the name Natanz rings any bells it’s as the subject of frequent news items in the Western media, most recently this week, because of its role as the location of Iran’s contentious nuclear facility. The installation sits deep in the stark Karkas Mountain range in Isfahan Province in central Iran and takes its name from a nearby township of around 45,000 people. Ironically, the municipality could not be more different from this barren, rocky landscape.

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A charming, sleepy, leafy place, with the sound of channelled water running along plane-tree-and-cypress-lined streets creating a cooling retreat from the surrounding desert, Natanz township is a worthwhile stopover for the traveller heading from Isfahan to Kashan. As the informative website says: “The traveller, coming upon (Natanz) in mid-summer, might … believe he is approaching a paradise. For Natanz arises out of the dust haze as if from some vision, or from the depths of unconscious experience: a green plain stretched out like a vast Persian carpet before his incredulous eyes.”

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Plane trees and cypress pines help Natanz keep its cool.

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Greenery and channeled water grace the Sheik Abd al-Samad mosque. 

Apart from being famous for its fruit, especially Natanz pears, a product of its chilly winter climate, it is known for the historic Sufi dervish mosque built as a shrine to Sheik Abd al-Samad by a disciple at the beginning of the 14th century. A cluster of religious buildings subsequently were spawned around the shrine.  An outstanding feature is an ancient plane tree, 800-years-old and planted at the time the mosque was built, and now a vast shady umbrella with numerous large trunks. Its massive root structure is said to be completely entangled with the structure’s foundations. Nearby is a 1700-year-old Sassanian Period Zoroastrian fire temple, a reminder of the region’s diverse religious heritage and of the strong links ancient Persia had with monotheism.

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The multi-trunked plane tree guards the mosque entrance. 

A beneficiary of the tree’s shading limbs is one of the grandest architectural facades in the country, a myriad of glazed, tiled blues and turquoises.  It is said that some of the geometric symbols are scientific symbols and another the basis of Mercedes Benz’ three-sided-star trade mark.   The shrine’s sanctity has not protected it from the ravages of looters, including British adventurers. One of the most lavish mirhabs in Iran, and an exquisite carved entrance door, were spirited away and are now ensconced in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Subsequent religious zealots have also left their mark defacing decorative images of creatures such as exotic birds.

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Nearby 1700-year-old Sassanian Period Zoroastrian fire temple. 

Standing sentinal at the entrance to Natanz is a giant representation of a pottery urn, a nod to one of the town’s past glories. Whatever industry existed is now but a shadow of its former self, most of the artisans long gone, but there is said to be growing interest in the distinctive Natanz pottery in which powdered stone rather than clay is used.

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The towering Karkas Mountains, rising almost 4000 metres and meaning mountain of vultures, are part of the Zagros range which begins in northwestern Iran and roughly correspond to the country’s western border. Perching atop a peak can be seen a tower structure, a Zoroastrian fire alter where the dead were laid to be consumed by vultures. The guiding principle of Zoroastrianism is: “good words, good thoughts, good deeds”. Let’s hope these words are front of mind for those nuclear proliferation talk negotiators.

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Goatherds tend their flocks in the shadow of the Zagros Mountains nuclear facility. 

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A wee dram(a)

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Despite my Scottish heritage Scotch is not my drop. Pure malt? Blend? As blasphemous as this will sound to the connoisseur my taste buds wouldn’t tell the difference. Which is a pity given that during my recent visit to Hokkaido I was fortunate enough to visit the famous and picturesque Nikka Distillery – renowned for its world-award-winning pure malt – in Yoichi. The founding of Nikka has a love story to go with it too, currently the subject of the romantic TV drama series Massan on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – Japan Broadcasting Corporation), so in “famous destination”-crazy Japan that’s the perfect combination for a hot tourist spot.

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The 1930s-era distillery sits in manicured grounds.

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The Shinto gods keep a watchful eye on the distilling whisky.  

The distillery was set up in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the third son of a sake brewer, who abandoned his predestined path to study western beverages. In a serendipitous combination of timing and fate this fitted into the vision of a Japanese liquor company looking to start producing a Japanese whisky. They hired Taketsuru and sent him to study at the University of Glasgow. There he boarded with a local family – with a daughter. Takesuru married Jessie (Rita) Roberta Cowan and the couple returned to Japan. Because of the difficult financial times Takesuru had to leave his original company, joining what was later to become Suntory to set up the Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka Prefecture to produce a Japanese malt whisky.

But Takesusu, with Rita as his invaluable helpmate, had a dream to stay true to the Scottish whisky tradition and found in Yoichi Prefecture the perfect combination of climate and clear water to achieve his goal. To create an additional income stream while his whisky was being developed he established the Dai Nippon Kaju Company – the Big Japan Juice Company – including apple juice from the abundant local orchards on the product list. Nikka was derived from Ni and ka.

Nikka Whisky has gone on to garner high international acclaim including a World’ s Best award for its Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt in 2012 at the World Whiskies Awards hosted by Paragraph Publishing, publishers of British specialty magazine Whisky Magazine. In further acknowledgement of Masataka Taketsuru’s legacy, earlier this month whisky expert Jim Murray awarded 97.5 marks out of 100 to a single malt from the distillery Taketsuru set up for Suntory at Yamazaki. The score recorded by the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 equalled the record for this category. As the Guardian newspaper said “Scottish drinkers could be forgiven for crying into their drams”.

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Native Hokkaido miniature apples. 

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From mighty oaks…

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..whisky barrels are made. 

The Yoichi Nikka Distillery sits in charming, manicured gardens amid pines, oaks (handy for making casks), native Hokkaido apples and numerous other tree and shrub varieties – and a parking lot full of tour buses.  Visitors are introduced to the distilling process and a museum tells the story of both the whisky’s development and the life story of the cherished founders. Generous provision is made for product tasting.

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Outside Masataka and Rita’s cottage in the distillery grounds. 

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Masataka Taketsuru surveys his empire.

It seemed fitting that featuring on NHK television the evening of my visit was an episode of Massan, starring American actress Charlotte Kate Fox as the heroine, Massan being Rita’s nickname for her husband.  Perhaps SBS could be coaxed into buying it – if they can muster sufficient funds after paying their “efficiency dividend”. I reckon one particular Japanese whisky company would be a certain advertiser!


All that jazz

Back in my formative baby boomer years I was a keen jazz fan. I loved Dave Brubeck and singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme. Then the Beatles and the 60s took over and jazz slipped into the background. Over the years I didn’t completely eschew jazz, enjoying the smoky sounds of masters such as Miles Davis, but have added many genres to my aural amusement list ranging from the classical – I’m a long-time subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra – to blues, country, bluegrass, zydeco, world, you name it.

Now I’m being reintroduced to the evolving world of jazz through the work of my Paris-based nephew, Alex Stuart, who is winning awards in his adopted country for his complex compositions and playing style. It’s very different to the jazz that caught my early attention and reflects the multicultural nature of today’s world, especially his world in cosmopolitan Paris, with its melting pot of post-French-colonial citizenry. The City of Light is one of the world’s jazz hotspots keeping company with the likes of New York and Montreal.

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Alex’s music assimilates this urbane mix with inspiration from rock musicians such as Dirty Projectors, Bjork and Grizzly Bear, and African, Asian and Latin American accents. The acclaimed spirit and techniques of West African music have infiltrated as a result of a stint in the group ‘Abakuya’, led by Camerounian Francois Essindi, and a 2009 residency in India with master sarodist Anindya Banerjee added the beautiful melodies and complex rhythms of the Hindustani classical tradition.

Alex moved to Paris in 2005 after completing his Bachelor of Music at the Australian National University School of Music. The city was already familiar: he lived there with his family for four years when he was a schoolboy. But not even Paris can dull the call of the Australian surf and beautiful South Coast New South Wales with Alex strategically planning an Australian tour to promote his new album Place to Be that incorporated a gig at the newly completed Windsong Pavilion at the Four Winds Festival site at Barragga Bay, Bermagui. It drew a sell-out crowd including many baby boomers like me who obviously harboured fond memories of a beatnik past.

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After-gig drinks on the lawns in the sylvan environs of the Windsong Pavilion at Barragga Bay. 



From little things…vale Gough

High on babyboomers’ where-were-you-when-you-heard list is the dismissal of the Whitlam government.  In my case I was visiting Brisbane from Japan to introduce my new daughter to both her maternal and paternal grandparents. Three years earlier as a news reporter on Channel 9 I had helped cover the Brisbane end of the 1972 It’s Time election when the sense of big changes ahead was palpable.

Gough’s election had coincided with my then husband’s appointment as a trainee diplomat and our subsequent move to Canberra. Arriving in the national capital in early 1973 was intoxicating. I quickly found work as a journalist on a local Canberra newspaper and the days were filled with the rapid fire legislative changes to the status quo. It was a roller coaster time for a populace so used to Conservative governments, despite the tumult of the preceding Vietnam War years.

In addition to being Prime Minister, Gough chose to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, because of his longstanding interest in the area. Despite Cate Blanchett’s claim at today’s memorial service that it was not possible to do an impression of Whitlam, a popular pastime with the young trainee deplomats was very plausible impersonations of the distinctive-voiced Gough and his deputy Lance Barnard. They had great fun ringing colleagues with “requests” or “directions” from the boss. Or great fun until one day the Foreign Minister himself rang – but no one would believe it was really him.

As an honours graduate in Japanese language and culture, with an extensive knowledge of Japanese history, my husband accompanied Whitlam on an official visit to one of Japan’s ancient capitals Kamakura. He found Whitlam, renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of many cultures, was the one doing the telling of Kamakura’s history.

On another “minder” assignment, post-1975 when the Whitlams were evacuated to Tokyo from China following a huge earthquake, my husband was on hand when Gough was shown a copy of a newspaper cartoon that had come in overnight on the telex machine. It showed the Whitlams in bed with Gough saying to Margaret “Did the earth move for you too, dear?” Whitlam was mightily amused and exclaimed “The old girl will be flattered!”

In later years, back in Australia and again working in communications, I recall meeting and interviewing a number of high-achieving women who would tell me they got their start in life because of  Gough Whitlam’s reforms making university education free. I used to think of them as “Gough’s Girls”.

It was timely the droll Max Gillies was staging his new satire Once Were Leaders in Canberra in the week of Gough’s death, dedicating the show to the great man. It was also a great opportunity for me to remember life in the national capital in more inspirational times. Vale Gough.

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Glassy venue

When I first lived in Canberra in the 1970s Kingston was far from being a trendy suburb. Created in the 1920s to house workers helping to construct the national capital, its built environment comprised mainly workers cottages and industrial sites such as the powerhouse. Now, like so suburbs in Australian capital cities, especially those that offer water frontages, it’s being gentrified. The result is an eclectic mix of residential, entertainment, lifestyle and cultural venues modish enough to make it into the New York Times’ popular 36 Hours In…. travel column.

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Public art in open spaces enhances the modish apartments and lifestyle precinct of Kingston.

Central to this transformation is the rebirth of the old Kingston Powerhouse, Canberra’s oldest public building, as the Canberra Glassworks, the nation’s biggest dedicated glass studio and a home for the ACT’s glass artists. The metamorphosis was done on ecologically sustainable lines, retaining the old building’s “bones” and superstructure, and creating a space not only to encourage the imagination of artists but to allow the public to watch them at work and learn about the glass making process. The in-house Glassworks’ shop presents a ready-made retail outlet.

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Tools of the trade. 

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Samples of finishes. 

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The metamorphosis from old powerhouse to glassworks has retained the buildings “bones”.

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The exquisite end products are for sale at the Glassworks’ retail store.  

The Glassworks sits as part of a broader arts precinct incorporating the Old Bus Depot Markets – another old building rejuvenated – and a print studio and gallery. As an example of what people power can achieve a favourite local burger joint, Brodburger, has been integrated into the precinct. The former street vendor of specialty hamburgers, who operated from a red caravan in nearby streets, had developed such a following that when the red tape brigade moved in and moved them on the people’s voice ensured them a venue at the sought-after location.

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 People power triumphs through Brodburger.