Headstones and lake reflections in Ballaratia

Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

Ballaarat Old Cemetery

Friday was sunshine and fluffy clouds, little breeze, the typical Ballaratian winter’s day, we are told, but the first we’ve been able to enjoy. So Kirstyn and I took the day off and went to the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

The city fathers were indeed wise to commission a second, with the city being a boom gold town and all, and the cemetery quite compact — population, about 25,000 (according to a sign board at the graveyard).

Here a lawn of unmarked pioneer era graves, here the Jews, here the Irish, the Germans … here the Chinese with the only oven I’ve seen outside of Mt Morgan.

Diggers' Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

Diggers’ Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery

Probably the boneyard’s greatest claim to fame is the Eureka rebellion, with separate monuments for soldiers and rebels who died in the uprising, the insurgents so popular a jury would not convict them for treason. Interesting wording on the monuments, too. Fascinating insight.

We were struck by the number of children and infants mentioned on the stones, a sign of the harsh conditions in the late 19th century, no doubt. Those simple engravings conveyed so much sorrow.

Others blustered with Christian piety or simple resignation and hope; some struck more affecting messages: my beloved has gone down into the garden to gather lilies in the garden.

More cemetery pictures

The cemetery is well tended, sparkling with wafting strands of cobweb glistening like fishing line. An information building offers some insights. There are few grand monuments, defying expectation of a wealthy town’s significant departures; maybe the toffs have got their pillars out at the ‘new’ cemetery … We will investigate!

Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

Next to the cemetery is the Eclectic Tastes Cafe. This converted home is one of those cafes that is welcoming as soon as you walk through the door — eclectic in decoration through its various rooms, a proudly parma-free zone, and a darn tasty menu with good coffee. I knocked back a sensational skillet of kidney beans and cheese and stuff, gently spiced, served with sourdough for sopping up the sauce. Kirstyn had a vegetarian pizza that even tempted me, thanks to nuts and blue cheese sauce. It’s the favourite eatery we’ve come across here so far.

Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree, Ballarat

Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree

Later in the afternoon, we headed for Ballarat’s defining geographical feature: Lake Wendouree. It’s been a site for rowers since 1864; now it’s dotted with boatsheds and cafes and parkland. We’ve yet to do a proper tour of the lake, and on Friday were content to just hover around one part where the Lake View Hotel enticed with its second-storey balcony … but we opted for cake and coffee on the deck at the tad pricey Boathouse Restaurant, right on the water, with a wonderful willow tree for extra scenery. There we could take in the water birds and joggers, rowers and paddlers and anglers as the sun sank and chill came down. One couple in a canoe pulled up at the cafe for coffee.

We snapped off a bunch of photos and retreated to home in the gloaming, appetites whetted for further exploration of Ballaratia.

More sunset pictures

Lake Wendouree sunset, Ballarat

Sunset, Lake Wendouree

Canberra to Clunes: books,books,books

booktown in clunes 2013Clunes, a mere 20 minutes outside of Ballarat, has turned on its Booktown charm this weekend. Book shops and stalls are replete with all manner of reading material, from $2 paperbacks to rather more expensive collectibles. Newspapers of yore, magazines, a couple of volumes listing Irish coppers by name and year … all manner of quirk and taste was on offer.

It was elbow room only in some book shops when we visited yesterday. There were comments such as, ‘this one’s cheaper here’, or, ‘it’s rare, but it doesn’t have the slipcase’.

We didn’t catch any of the talks, but were content to browse and sup coffee and score tucker from the food vans.

What a cute town; what a lot of books!

Indeed, it has been a week of books, for only last weekend we were in Canberra for Conflux (various reports on the con are here), the national spec fic convention.

It was a hoot, with much catching up and some doozy panels too.

Angry Robot honcho Marc Gascoigne was a guest, and it was a little sad to hear him, and others, say that stories could be *too* Australian for the international market. Look forward to further US hegemony or more universal voices? Let’s hope not. Marc also painted a picture of Angry Robot that had many of us lining up with our CVs — their building has CAVES!

And how good was it to see the marvellous Nalo Hopkinson back in Australia? Very bloody good!

Great to see Russell B Farr land the A Bertram Chandler award for his career in publishing to date, awarded at one of the best Ditmar award presentations ever, overseen by Deborah Biancotti and ably supported by Lego and a cock-block clock (of which I am now the proud recipient due to lottery, and hope becomes an institution for future awards). Kirstyn won an award for her Writer and the Critic podcast with Ian Mond, which was a lovely nod, and as expected, Margo Lanagan’s wonderful Sea Hearts took out the best novel award. The full list of winners can be found here.

the bride price by cat sparksAnd there were book launches … so many book launches! One standout — and an alliterative one, too! — was that for Cat Sparks, rolling out her collection The Bride Price with Ticonderoga — it sold out! Before I got a copy! But there are many more, and you should check them out, too.

In between Canberra and Clunes, there was mileage: about 2500km worth, which included selling off a portion of my comic collection in Maitland, my first visit to Echuca and picking up some Campbells wines (home of Empire Port) in Rutherglen. Ah, road trips … gotta love’em. Especially when you get home with wine and books!

Newcastle Writers Festival truly ex-cell-ent

newcastle jail courtyard

Newcastle Gaol courtyard, scene of the crime

Every writers’ festival should have a jail.

Especially for a panel on horror.

The inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival  was a hoot, and pretty darn smooth, too, despite being held over a number of venues and being run by staff who hadn’t really done much like this before.

They had 60 writers and a whole lot of sell-out panels, with a grand get-together at the art gallery and an opening night speech par excellence from Miriam Margolyes  in a gorgeous theatre, panels in council chambers and the wonderfully scenic Noah’s hotel and a pub and — awesomeness of awesomeness — an old jail!

Kirstyn and I had a grand ol’ chat with Jenny Blackford about writing and horror and Kirstyn’s necklace and the barbarous destruction of some very old fig trees in a city park, all in the surrounds of a barred courtyard with an old loo in the far corner. Newcastle is Kirstyn’s old stomping ground, and it was interesting to see the evolution of the city through her remembrances.

Also flying the flag for spec fic was Margo Lanagan — we caught her YA panel. Jack Dann and Janeen Webb and Russell Blackford were also guests, but family commitments meant we got only to see Jack read an amazing homage to Gene Wolfe in a packed pub outing dedicated to Sin. Amidst gay-hating religion and people smuggling and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ — the poem, not Iron Maiden — Jack and wonderfully, pointedly funny Anita Heiss brought the prose on home.

Miriam Margolyes’ opening night talk — highly recommended

Anyway, we loved the atmosphere at the festival — they drove those of us at Noah’s in an adapted tram to the Friday night soiree! — and Newcastle itself is a pretty amazing place, so much going on in not a lot of square mileage given the coal and the coast and river and history and attempts to breathe life into the inner city. Some wonderful artwork on display, for instance, at the Emporium, and some serious cafe action. There’s even a writers’ walk, which we didn’t get to do, but the fact they have one is pretty cool. I felt there was a real hunger there for some spec fic action, too. If even felt like a spec fic convention in one way: the hotel’s bar shut far too early!

The festival was such a blast the organisers have already announced dates for next year — April 4–6 — and we’re putting it on the calendar now. Even if the festival isn’t using the jail as a venue next year, there are tours. Ex-cell-ent!

New year, new home, new books!

website clipping of ballarat

When I’ve told people we’re moving to Ballarat, there are two comments that usually follow: ‘Why?’ and, ‘It’s cold, y’know. Like, freezing.’

To the latter, the simple answer is, y’know, coats. But the former is a bit more long winded, to do with property prices in Melbourne, and how Ballarat is as close as we could get to spitting distance of the big smoke, and how it’s got a uni and a writers’ centre and a literature festival (hey, it’s Victoria: what town doesn’t have a literature festival? or a market…), and so on. I liken it to being on the Sunshine Coast and working in Brissie, without the coast. Or the ranges, for that matter. Okay, so it’s got a train and it’s got two lanes of divided road with a respectable stretch of 110kmh in between, and it takes about same amount of time, traffic (an hour and a bit) and rail gods (90 minutes and a bit) allowing.

Ballarat’s a tidy town, brimming with neat cottages and such, and history oozing out its mine shafts. No river to speak of, but lots of culverts, and a very fine lake with swans. I’m told it has a very good Irish pub, obviously that friend’s first memory of a previous visit, and a very fine bakery, too — my friends have broad tastes, clearly. Plus — OMG — an absinthe bar!

Kirstyn and I are looking forward to exploring the place, and the surrounds — for instance, the Pyrenees wine district, which I’m told does a very drinkable shiraz, which is what I want in a wine region. Oh yes. AND we’ve spotted a cafe with a view of the cemetery from the al freso dining area — w00t!

By the end of February, we’ll be Ballaratians. Some might pronounce the former Ballah-ratt-e-ans, but I’m thinking of going for Bal-ah-ray-shuns. I guess Rats could also come up. B-Rat is just far too street. I’m stopping now.

So, a new address, our own patch of suburban dirt with a line already dotted out for a future chook pen, I believe. Excitements!

To go with the new house, new books (though the books came first, to be honest), one apiece: my outback vampire road-trippin’ blood-lettin’ romp, Blood and Dust, and Kirstyn’s dark tale of family secrets, an amazing game of make believe and how what you wish for can be a tad detrimental, Perfections. Both are available now in digital formats (all of ‘em) thanks to the small but passionate team at Xoum.

There will be some kind of ceremony to mark the arrival of these two yarns into the wilds, but it’s been delayed by the move. One thing to be said for e-books — no packing!

house with Hills hoist

A Hills hoist of our own

 

Time out in the Grampians

halls gap from pinnacle in grampians national parkHectic times here at the desk, so not a lot of bloggage; needless to say, skiving off last weekend to hit the Grampians was a blessed relief. We stayed at the well appointed Boronia Peak Villas, close enough to walk to the centre of Halls Gap and the most excellent Kookaburra restaurant (you really do need to book for weekend dinner; we were lucky to get in and saw more than one hungry diner turned away).

Kangaroos rule Halls Gap, and we also saw deer and plenty of bird life: cockatoos, galahs, ducks with parades of ducklings, parrots of all shades, wrens, ravens and currawongs, and simply oodles of all sorts … and that was just in town!

Twas spring and wildflowers were spraying colour all over the national park, a much more colourful affair than our previous visit in May when the weather had been somewhat drab compared to the warm sun and cool breezes we encountered at the weekend.

pinnacle walk in grampiansWe managed to get in walks to the spectacular Pinnacle — the 2km journey was steep but not entirely mountain goat terrain, with some amazing rock formations and a stunning view at the top — and the much smoother creek-side Silverband Falls, still showing signs of devastating flooding in 2011, and the Balconies lookout, with quick stops at the Boroka Lookout and Lake Bellfield along the way.

Back in May, we did the steep stairs down to the base of Mackenzie Falls, too, but we ran out of time this weekend.

It really is a gorgeous area, and only three hours from Melbourne. It really does make you appreciate the effort to not only protect such sites, but to make them accessible.

cliff in grampians


These are some of the pix I took on my mobile phone after both sets of batteries for my point-and-shoot died. More from the weekend, including actual camera shots, are at my Flickr site.

Napoleon conquers at NGV

napoleon exhibit at ngv

It took two-and-a-half hours to go through the Napoleon exhibition at NGV yesterday. It wasn’t particularly crowded, but there was oodles to see and read. Simply oodles. Busts, furniture, books, uniforms, paintings. Music.

This line jumped out:

The attention paid to the decorative arts in particular was part of a wider plan to revive the country’s economy…

Whoa! Art as an important part of a nation’s economy as well as identity? Revolutionary stuff, at least Down Under.

Napoleon’s savvy might not have made it down here just yet, but the little dictator was fascinated by Terra Australis, in particular Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery.

A section of the exhibit is dedicated to giving the French their due in the mapping of the coastline and the cataloguing of its flora and fauna. Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, even had black swans, emus and kangaroos in the garden.

The Australian connection runs close to home, too. I also wasn’t aware of the Napoleonic memorabilia to be found at Briars Park on the Mornington Peninsula, thanks to a family connection running to Napoleon’s incarceration on St Helena.

napoleon on horsebackAnother section sets the scene for his rise to power, and then it’s a chronological introduction to his career and the way art changed with the times as classic imperial motifs rose to the fore.

You can trace his evolution from thin-faced general to round-cheeked emperor; a video of his death mask completes the passage. One watercolour portrait on a small box shows eyes of avarice; another display contrasts his simple soldierly tastes with the pomp of state; elsewhere there is mention of manipulation of the media of the day with exaggerated reportage and widespread iconography of his greatness.

As always in such a historical display, there’s the fascination at the thought of these items being used: the combs and travelling boxes, the chair with the lion-headed arms, the Psyche mirror …

A familiarity with the French ruler’s history is advisable to help fill in the gaps, but what a champion display this is.

Meals on wheels: Melbourne’s Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

melbourne's colonial tramcar restaurantOn Sunday night we dined out in style for a friend’s 50th, indulging in five courses on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

The 1947 tram has been decked out with lamps, tables for four and for two, a chef and bar service, and for three hours it trundles amongst a convoy of three around Melbourne — St Kilda, Albert Park and Docklands slid past the tinted windows, while a various artists playlist of the Eagles, Prince and Sinead O’Connor played quietly in the background.

The food was top notch: appetiser of dips, entree of grilled barramundi, main of eye fillet, cheese and then sticky date pudding for dessert, all washed down with sparkling and red wine, with port to finish. All included in the price. The staff were awesomely friendly, too.

Rather than rush home from the tram, we made a night of it, crashing at Citigate, right opposite Flinders St Station, which meant we could walk everywhere we needed to go: ideal springtime lunch at Southbank, then to the tram, then to the gallery in the morning before the train home. The room was spacious enough for two people with only one carry-on bag between them, there was an iPod dock, the staff were wonderfully friendly, and this was the view from the twelfth floor:

view from citigate hotel melbourneQuiet, too. All they need now are proper cave curtains to keep out the sunlight.

Writing by the dock of the lake

writers soaking up the sun at Lake Mulwala

Lake view at Mulwala

The writing group to which I belong hit Lake Mulwala at the weekend for a three-night writing retreat. What a brilliant spot it was, with a dozen of us camped in a two-storey joint on the lakeside: a drowned forest, a plethora of birds — including cockatoos and a black swan who came a’visiting — and some amazing moon rises, including a blue moon!

The town sits on the New South Wales side of the Victorian border, across from the rural town of Yarrawonga, and took about three-and-a-half hours of scenic driving to get to from Melbourne. We also popped into Euroa to stretch the legs and scarf down a very tasty lunch.

wine by the case

Winery supply run

It was also fortuitous that the Rutherglen wine district is only a short drive away. After tasting and lunch ($20 with a drink, w00t!) at Rutherglen winery in town, we hit All Saints (with added cheese!), Stanton & Killeen and Campbells . We returned with the rattle of bottles; fortifieds mostly. The muscats hit the sweet spot.

But the aim was writing, when we weren’t chowing down on our self-catered banquets. And writing we did, each in their own way. I managed to untangle a lot of the knots in a new novel, so slowly but surely that yarn is coming together. There was plotting. There was scribbling. Typing. Solitaire. Ahem.

Mulwala lake retreat

Wordsmiths at work


It is such an advantage to be able to get away to somewhere quiet with like-minded souls and just butt up against the story. With only cockatoos and pretty sunsets to distract, it was a very productive and rewarding time indeed. Having a nearby walking track along the lake edge was an asset, too, because sometimes the brain just needs some downtime to process and come up with some subconscious solutions.

The retreat has added impetus for a new Supernova website, which seeks to draw together the various news and views of the members as well as extol the simple virtue of having a constructive support network to keep you on track. Ellen has written about the retreat there to help get the ball rolling.


Sunset over Lake Mulwala

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