Photo Project: Days of Thunder (Calder Park Thunderdome)

February 28, 1988. Melbourne’s $54 million Calder Park Thunderdome hosts the first ever NASCAR race outside of America. Over 45,000 fans pack into the stands to watch Neil Bonnett pilot his Pontiac to victory. NASCAR has arrived in Australia.

Easter Monday, 2016. The stock cars are long gone. They’ve been gone from the Thunderdome for 15 years. Declining interest and dwindling entries killed them off.

If you close your eyes you can imagine what the symphony of 32 NASCAR engines must have sounded like around this place. But today, the only sound is my camera shutter and the hum of the overhead transmission lines.

The best and worst of living in Melbourne

When Tess and I moved from Brisbane down to to Melbourne at the end of 2014, there were a couple of potential outcomes.

We could have gone full-Melburnian (NEVER go full Melburnian) and ended up with sleeve tattoos and ‘ironic’ shit clothes, riding fixies everywhere and surviving solely off organic gluten-free paleo vegan acai bowls.

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Sunset over St Kilda. Decent.

Or we could have hated Melbourne, and fled for the sanctuary of Queensland where we could live out our days hooked up to an intravenous supply of Bundaberg Rum and ending all of our sentences with “ayyy”.

Luckily neither of those things happened. Nearly 18 months after moving, we are still here, enjoying Melbourne life – but not without a healthy dose of cynicism.

So here it is, the 5 best and worst things about living in Melbourne…

Best

Food and Drink

Look, I’m not exactly a foodie. I know, I know, that must come as a huuuuge surprise to any of you who have seen me destroy a plate of potato skins at Sizzler.

But even a food philistine like me can’t help but be impressed by Melbourne’s food and drink scene – especially the breakfasts.

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The Kettle Black, South Melbourne

Ohhh the breakfasts (well, brunch really; no one bothers with breakfast before 11). There are just so many amazing places that we hardly go to the same place twice. But if I had to pick a favourite, it’d choose The Kettle Black in South Melbourne.

Word of warning: if you’re a simpleton from Queensland like me, bring a dictionary if you go for breakfast anywhere. Otherwise, good luck trying to work out what the hell things like freekah, chevre or medjool are.

Other than breakfast, I recommend the coffee at Brother Baba Budan, the donuts at Short Stop, the drinks at Murmur, and dinner at Chin Chin (all in the city). If you’re after an ice-cream, check out Will’s Batch in Elsternwick, while for an Indian takeaway, you can’t beat Babu Ji in St Kilda.

The Sporting Capital of Australia

Other than Melbourne, where else in the world can you go to a Grand Prix and tennis grand slam in the same city?

Nowhere else, that’s where.

Nothing beats sitting in the stands at the ‘G or soaking up the fiery atmosphere of a Melbourne derby.

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The Melbourne A-League Derby

People here keep asking me have I gotten into AFL yet? No, not really, I’m still an NRL (and A-League) man. I have got into AFL a bit more, I suppose. It’s hard not to when it makes up the first 18 pages of the weekend sport section… it’s inescapable!

Daylight Savings

Dear anti-Daylight Savings people of Queensland, let me confirm to you that daylight savings does NOT:

  • Fade the curtains
  • Confuse animals
  • Make the day hotter

It does however, let you finish work, come home, and still go for a walk or have a BBQ while it’s still light outside.

Always something to do

There is always something on. Always. You will never, ever run out of things to do in Melbourne.

Probably the best things we’ve seen would be the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (it’s still on if you want to go), and the David Bowie is exhibition at ACMI last year.

Oh yeah, and this:

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Yes it’s a Dachshund race – hover dog on the left went on to win

Take U To Da Movies

If the impossible does happen and you do run out of things to do here, here’s my tip: go and see a movie at one of Melbourne’s amazing arthouse and independent cinemas.

I recommend the Lido in Hawthorn or the Art Deco Sun Theater in Yarraville (where Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson turned up out of the blue to promote The Hateful Eight).

The Great Ocean Road

There are some beautiful day trips you can do from Melbourne, but nothing beats the Great Ocean Road and the 12 apostles. There is nothing I can say that will do it just, so I’ll just leave this here:

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea
Standing at the limit of an endless ocean
Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea

The Worst

The Drivers

Driving in Melbourne, holy shit. Horrendous. Even the shortest trip ends up like the last lap of the Bathurst 1000.

I learned to drive in Queensland but I think a Victorian driving tests must look like this:

Demonstrated ability to occupy two lanes at once – check
Competency in tailgating – check
Blocks all other motorists from merging – check
Beeps at car in front 0.001 seconds after light turns green – check

Driving to the shops be like
Driving to the shops be like

It’s just insane on the roads here. I’ve been in more car crashes (two, neither of them my fault) and seen more road rage in 18 months than in the entire previous decade of driving in Brisbane.

Terrible weather

The winters are rubbish, but it’s summer that’s kills me. Or more specifically, the lack of (summer = more than 2 hot days in a row).

It was 18 degrees the other day. In January. I was in London a few weeks ago and it was 11 degrees there. Literally only 7 bloody degrees difference between Melbourne summer and London winter. WHAT!?

Locals always say “oh it’s not that bad!” or “yeah but it makes you appreciate the good weather more!”. Yeah righto mate Melbourne’s weather is better than the weather in South Sudan or outer Mongolia. As for the second point, yes I do appreciate good weather more now, but it’s a moot point when I’m wearing a jumper 340 days of the year.

It’s too busy

Me, getting on the train every single morning:

 Elitism

Something weird I’ve noticed here is this bizarre air of Melbourne superiority that some people have, the main theme being MELBOURNE IS THE BEST CITY IN THE WORLD ALL THE OTHER CITIES ARE COMPLETELY TERRIBLE PS. SYDNEY IS WORSE THAN BAGHDAD.

I once unwisely told a colleague that I reckon Brisbane is just as good as Melbourne and he looked at me like I’d just proposed constructing a space-ship out of ants before shouting “YEAH BUT MELBOURNE IS THE WORLD’S MOST LIVABLE CITY” over and over again.

Jimmy

Living next door to an ice fiend in some kind of real life version of the Australian film The King is Dead was AWFUL. Not really Melbourne’s fault (although I’ve become adept at identifying junkies since moving here), but awful all the same.

We knew something was up as soon as “Jimmy” moved in next door. When we first met him we also met his “cleaner”, a rough as guts looking woman aged between 25 and 90. The very first thing she said to us was “Jimmy’s alright you know, I’ll vouch for him”. Err OK.

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Inexplicable. It sat there for 3 hours.

She was right. He was “alright”. But more alright as in “he won’t murder you”, and not the more comforting “he isn’t a drug dealer who will invite junkies around at 3am on a Tuesday who will bash on your windows”.

The 24/7 parade of drug clientele was bad enough, but nothing compared to the bags of used condoms and dead fish he’d leave sitting on the landing. Sometimes there would also be a raw chicken sitting on his doorstep.

Luckily, after 831 emails and phone calls to the police, body corporate and real estate agency, Jimmy eventually got evicted, leaving behind an enormous pile of MDF furniture and used syringes on the footpath.

Melbourne Airport

Seriously Melbourne, get a new airport. Yours is terrible. No wonder it got named the worst major airport in Australia.

Mourn for Paris. Remember Beirut.

The outpouring of grief for the people of Paris has been heart warming. Over the last few days, famous landmarks and social media profile pictures alike have been emblazoned with the tricolour to show solidarity with the people of Paris and defiance in the face of terrorism.

I changed my own Facebook profile picture to an old holiday snap of the French flag flying underneath the Arc de Triomphe. I know that changing my profile picture does not actually do anything, but it is a simple little gesture that thousands of people have done to show that we too are upset and repulsed by what has happened.

I didn’t think about my profile picture again until someone pointed out that if we are going to display the French flag everywhere, then we should have coloured our landmarks and social media pages in red, green and white after 44 people were killed last Friday when ISIS bombs tore through a crowded Beirut street.

imageThat particular terrorist attack – one of literally hundreds so far this year – largely escaped the attention of the western media. I certainly can’t remember hearing about it, and if I did I am guilty of ignoring it.

Here in Australia, there were no noticeable tributes to those who died in Lebanon. No endless ocean of Lebanese flags on social media; no Cedar trees projected onto the side of the Sydney Opera House. Nothing.

I tried to rationalise why we are so quick to express (genuine) grief and shock over terrorist events in the western world while largely ignoring those that occur in the Middle East.

The obvious reason is that terrorism in other western cities like Paris is far more relatable to us then terrorism in Syria or Lebanon or Afghanistan. Paris is a city that many of have visited – even if we haven’t, we’re familiar with champagne, croissants and the Eiffel Tower.

An explosion at a France vs Germany football game, gunmen at an Eagles of Death Metal concert, and suicide bombers at a McDonald’s restaurant hit home more than a deadly attack in a city we have never been to, in a country that we don’t know much about.

I thought about it a bit more and did a bit more digging, delving into Lebanese and French culture and influence in Australia.

One thing that stood out to me is this: there are twice as many people of Lebanese ancestry in Australia as there are French. Over 203,000 Lebanese Australians; 110,000 French Australians (2011 Australian Census).

And yet despite this, we as a country basically ignored the Beirut bombings. An event that killed 44 people in a country that 203,000 Australians descended from, and yet we as a nation barely acknowledged it. If I was Lebanese, I would be disheartened by that.

The list of recent terrorist attacks is frighteningly long. A few weeks ago, 224 people were killed after Russian commercial jetliner was (most likely) blown up by Islamic State terrorists in Egypt. In October, 102 people were killed by suicide bombers at a peace rally in the Turkish capital city, Ankara. In each tragic instance, barely a media ripple in the west.

It all reminds me of the economist Adam Smith’s 18th century musings on this issue. He wrote in 1759, that were a man in Europe to lose his little finger, he would “not sleep” that night, such would be the impact on him; but were that same man to learn of the Chinese Empire being swallowed up by an Earthquake, he would express deep sorrow but sleep easy and “snore with the most profound security”.

Today, to us in the west, Paris is the little finger, the Arab world the Chinese earthquake.

We should, and will continue, to mourn what has happened in France over the weekend. It is deeply upsetting. When these things happen in places that we have been to or can relate to, they are infinitely more shocking. That’s why the Lindt Cafe siege, a relatively minor event in the grand and horrible scheme of things, had such an effect on us.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

But at the same time, we must keep a few things in the  back of our minds – not least that the overwhelming majority of victims of terrorism attacks are Muslim. Well over half, possibly as many as 97% if you believe the US Department of State.

By remembering that the Muslim world is even more endangered than ‘western civilisation’ is by these evil ISIS butchers, we can make this about the moderates vs the radicals and not the west vs Islam. That is the only way we can win.

I flew on the world’s worst airline

For the fourth year running, Skytrax, the airline ratings website, has awarded North Korea’s Air Koryo the ignominious label of world’s worst airline. The hermit kingdom’s national carrier was the only airline to receive a one star rating, with Skytrax citing the airline’s questionable safety record and fleet of ageing Soviet aircraft.

Not that anyone in North Korea would know about the ‘world’s worst’ title. The Orwellian North Korean media would never acknowledge such a blatant western swipe at their glorious airline! They prefer to concentrate on celerabrating questionable North Korean triumphs – like the alleged invention by North Korean scientists of a vaccine that can prevent AIDS and Ebola. Seems completely legit.

But anyhow, after learning this week that Air Koryo had successfully defended the airline rankings wooden spoon, it brought back memories of my own flight with them a few years back.

It was November 2012. Barack Obama had just been re-elected and Kim Jong-un had been leader of North Korea for less than a year when I boarded Air Koryo Flight JS152 from Beijing to Pyongyang as part of a group tour. The tour company organised the flights and visas for me, and all I had to do was turn up at Beijing airport with my passport.

Inside the cabin of the Russian-built Tupolev
Inside the cabin of the Russian-built Tupolev

The check in was unbelievably lethargic – easily the slowest I have ever seen. Life in the Chinse capital moves at breakneck speed, but snail’s pace is the only speed at the Air Koryo check in counter. Each passenger was laboriously checked in, as the counter staff stared intently at their screens in between tapping away at their keyboards and disappearing for five or ten minutes at a time.

The tardiness gave me lots of time to observe the legions of North Korean passengers (easy to pinpoint with red Dear Leader pins over their hearts) as they checked in what seemed like the contents of every department store in Beijing. Cartons of cigarettes, crates of booze, flat screen televisions, even a 27” screen Apple iMac.

Johnny Walker and the Marlboro Man might seem like strange bedfellows with Kim Jong-un, but remember that any North Korean travelling abroad is not a typical North Korean. No, they are amongst the most elite, and the North Korean elite have a history of this sort of thing. At one time Kim Jong-il was the world’s largest buyer of Hennessy Paradis cognac.

After checking in, I boarded the Tupolev Tu-204 and sat down as the cabin crew around me worked to wedge in bag after bag of duty free into every available square centimetre of space.

Passengers flying from Beijing to Pyongyang used to have to put their lives in the hands of fifty year old Soviet Illuyshins, but the Tu-204 is a relatively modern aircraft (there are two of them in the Air Koryo fleet) which on the inside does not look hugely different to any similar Boeing or Airbus.

The big difference came from the in-flight entertainment options. The overhead LCD screens displayed Korean language movies (all celebrating the glorious leader of course), while an English language edition of the Pyongyang Times had to make do for reading material. The copy I flicked through included such thrilling articles as “Wide-ranging research on vegetable production” and “Welfare and sporting facilities bring smile to Pyongyang People”. Gripping stuff.

Lunch on Air Koryo JS152 - not great, but not as awful as you might think
Lunch on Air Koryo JS152 – not great, but not as awful as you might think

Like all flights should be, the time in the air was uneventful. It was a perfect day for flying, and the flight was smooth, punctuated only by the serving of lunch, which consisted of fairly typical airline food: some chicken, a few slices of ham, some fruit and a little piece of sponge cake. It wasn’t great, but I would criticize it for being bland or processed tasting before I would call it bad or inedible.

With lunch out of the way, I relaxed back in my seat and looked out the window down towards the grey and brown palette of the barren North Korean landscape. As we touched down with an almighty thud onto the pot-holed Pyongyang runway I saw soldiers stationed around the perimeter of the airport.

I filed out of the plane with the North Koreans and my fellow tourists, walked down the air stairs and stepped out onto the apron, where the crisp winter Pyongyang air contrasted with the thick Beijing smog that I had left behind just a couple of hours earlier.

Last month Kim Jong-un opened a slick new terminal building, but in 2012 they were still making use of a temporary terminal with bare concrete floors and no running water. Clearing customs and immigration was much quicker than checking in had been (the only delay coming when the customs official took an interest in my iPad), and the rest of the group and I met the tour bus to begin our tour.

So, is Air Koryo the world’s worst airline?

Well look, my experience was skewed by two things. The novelty of flying into North Korea, and the fact the Beijing-Pyongyang route is serviced by a relatively modern Tupolev and not some decades old Cold War era-relic.

Got there in one piece... that's all that matters, right?
Got there in one piece… that’s all that matters, right?

Take that out of the equation, and yes, Air Koryo is an ordinary airline. The service is basic, the cabin crew are polite but aloof, the food is edible and not much more, and the facilities at each end are poor. Put it this way, if Air Koryo flew Sydney-Melbourne I would still brave Tigerair and the hell of Tullamarine’s Terminal 4 every single time.

But having said all that, there was nothing that screamed ‘world’s worst’ about it all. I never felt unsafe (although that might be a false sense of security?) and I have flown on older and wearier looking planes than the Tu-204.

There was nothing about it that was overwhelmingly bad. And for all the criticisms of Air Koryo’s safety record, no one has died on one of their planes in over twenty years, something which cannot be said for a lot of other airlines (interestingly, the Airline Ratings review website has awards Air Koryo a safety rating of 5.5 out of 7 – which puts them ahead of a lot of African and East Asian airlines).

So no, I don’t think that Air Koryo is the worst airline in the world. Might be worth giving the Supreme Leader some credit, eh Skytrax?

You can read about my visit to North Korea here.

Concert Review: Blur

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, July 28, 2015

Being a mega, mega Oasis fan I have had about eight thousand ‘Oasis v Blur’ debates over the years. Every time I have staunchly put forward the case for the Gallagher brothers. Better anthems. Better tunes. Louder guitars. Way better jokes. Like that video of Liam accepting a Brit Award in 1996 and singing “Shiiiiiitelife” to the tune of Blur’s Parklife. Funny lads, those Gallaghers.

But after last night’s Blur concert at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, I think I might have to go and take a long hard look at myself. At a time when Liam Gallagher is performing on television in tracksuit pants and looking increasingly like a football hooligan at the 1998 World Cup, Damon Albarn and Blur are on a massive world tour in support of their brand new album, The Magic Whip.

Conventional wisdom always said to me that Oasis won the ‘Britpop war’. They outlived Blur, outsold them, had number one hits well after Blur broke up, were still filling football stadiums right up until the moment an enraged Liam smashed up one of Noel’s guitars in Paris, triggering the breakup of the band after sibling fight number 94832.

Woo-hoo!
Woo-hoo!

The tables have turned though, and after reforming in earnest following a series of one off concerts, suddenly Blur are the last one’s standing. And seeing them last night showed that they aren’t just going through the motions either – they’ve absolutely still got it. Damon is full of energy, jumping around like it is 1995, decked out in his Fred Perry polo and splashing around litres of Mt Franklin.

Speaking of crowds, a brief Public Service Announcement. To the girl who pushed her way to the front 2 minutes before the concert started, only to (seemingly proudly) proclaim “I only know that woo-hoo song”: YOU ARE A TOTAL IDIOT.

But I digress. Not even her, nor the stench of chemical weapons grade BO emanating from the woman in front of me could take away from the best concert I have seen all year. There will be some who say they played too many songs from The Magic Whip (7 all up), but they are wrong. It is an album that stands up on its own two feet alongside anything else in their discography, and Blur should be applauded for making music that good nearly 25 years (!) since their debut.

Of course though, as good as the likes of ‘Go Out’ and ‘Lonesome Street’ undoubtedly are, it was ‘Song 2’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘Girls and Boys’ that had the crowd absolutely pumping, and ‘Tender’ that brought out the inner choir in the 15,000 strong audience. There were plenty of other old favourites too: ‘Coffee and TV’, ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘There’s No Other Way’ amongst them, with ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘The Universal’ finishinf off the evening.

Right. This is hard for me. But I admit it. I like Oasis more, but Blur are (objectively) a better band than Oasis. Sorry Liam, Sorry Noel, I still love you.

Setlist

Go Out
There’s No Other Way
Lonesome Street
Badhead
Ghost Ship
Coffee & TV
Out of Time
Beetlebum
Thought I Was a Spaceman
Trimm Trabb
My Terracotta Heart
Tender
Trouble in the Message Centre
Parklife
Ong Ong
Song 2
Pyongyang
To the End
This Is a Low
Stereotypes
Girls & Boys
For Tomorrow
The Universal

Concert Review: Johnny Marr

The Forum Theater, Melbourne, July 22, 2015

When bands break up in acrimonious circumstances, it leaves the members in a bit of a bind when they play solo shows. Are they meant to shun their old band’s discography or are they meant to please Joe Public and play nothing but the hits? Bore the crowds and please the critics, or please the crowds and lose critical respect?

Fortunately though, at Melbourne’s Forum Theater last Wednesday night, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (also known as “Johnny Fuckin’ Marr” if you read the huge writing on the front of his shirts at the merchandise desk) showed an adoring crowd that he is neither stuck in the past nor afraid of embracing it.

I saw Marr playing guitar for Modest Mouse at a festival years ago (as well as being in the Smiths, he’s also been a member of Modest Mouse, the Cribs and the Pretenders – what a CV!), but I’ve been waiting ever since then to see him at his own show. I had to wait a little big longer still after this concert as part of the Playland tour had to be rescheduled after it was postponed in January due to illness in Marr’s family.

Johnny Marr
Guitar God

The support slot was filled by Melbourne shoe-gazers, Flyying Colours. In all honesty I hadn’t heard of them before Wednesday and I’ve missed too many support acts lately, but I’m so glad I made the effort to see these guys. They produced an absolutely huge wall of sound that recalled the Verve’s early songs or Leeds band, the Music. I’ve made a mental note to pencil them in alongside the DMA’s as young Aussie bands channeling the sounds of early nineties England.

Good as they may have been, there was only one man the crowd was there to see, and shortly afterwards a mop-haired, red-shirted Manc with a Fender Jaguar slung around his neck took to the stage. What followed next was a blistering hour and a half of Marr showing off his guitar god credentials across a set comprising songs from his latest album, Playland, half-a-dozen  Smiths songs, Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With it’ (from Marr’s band with New Order’s Bernand Sumner) and a cover of the Clash version of ‘I Fought the Law’.

Marr’s Playland album is a winner (seriously – if you like the Smiths, give it a spin), and the songs from it are the perfect showcase for Marr’s infamous jangly guitar sound. But unsurprisingly it is the Smiths songs that get the biggest response, with the venue erupting from ‘Panic’ through to ‘How Soon is Now?’ with a detour along the way for ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’.

Who would have imagined that it could be so joyous being part of a crowd singing about getting run over and killed by a double decker bus?

Setlist

Playland
Panic (The Smiths cover)
The Right Thing Right
Easy Money
25 Hours
New Town Velocity
The Headmaster Ritual (The Smiths cover)
Back in the Box
Spiral Cities
Generate! Generate!
Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Smiths cover)
Candidate
Getting Away with It (Electronic cover)
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (The Smiths cover)
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (The Smiths cover)
Dynamo
I Feel You (Depeche Mode cover)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths cover)