SYDNEY OR MELBOURNE?

LOCAL / NATIONAL RIVALRIES between urban giants

Cities that enjoy unrivalled pre-eminence within their countries are rare and especially in many of the lands of the newer worlds. As a native of London – a city which similarly to Paris and France, enjoys sole national supremacy – this phenomenon has always interested me. While this development seems natural in geographically enormous countries like Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), China (Beijing and Shanghai) and the USA (New York City and Los Angeles) it is also true of smaller nations, such as New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Rome and Milan).*

City rivalries develop for a whole host of reasons, including geography, internal competing nationalisms, politics, local nationalisms, commerce and of course, history. Occasionally these rivalries can blow up into full blown rows, and given sufficient regional identity, even war. Often, newer countries with two or more “competing” cities have avoided potential trouble by creating distinct administrative/political national capital cities – such as Brasilia, in the case of Brazil (cf Rio versus Sao Paulo); or by elevating a non rival city to the same position – such as Canberra in the case of Australia (cf Melbourne versus Sydney). Even in newer countries with relatively long-established capitals, such as Washington DC (USA) Durban (South Africa), and Ottawa (Canada), these cities rarely evolve into their respective nations commercial or cultural urban powerhouses.

Presented below are my thoughts on three famous urban rivalries I am familiar with…

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MELBOURNE AND SYDNEY – I seem to recollect the late, great Clive James once describing Sydney as appearing like a fabulous jewel neckless from the air (or words to that effect), and while there’s no doubting that Australia’s largest city wins hands down in the beauty stakes, I have enjoyed my visits to its great rival, (and nearly as large) Melbourne far more. Apart from its truly iconic architecture and geography, Sydney seems parochial and dull compared to its cosmopolitan and vibrant Victorian neighbour. Not only is Melbourne the beating heart of the Aussie arts and culture scene (with all due apologies to the Sydney Opera House), it’s also the sporting capital; not just of Australia, but of the entire southern hemisphere; and not to mention, a gourmet’s paradise – I mean, where else in the world (including Greece) can one find a truly great Greek restaurant?!

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TORONTO AND MONTREAL – With the risk of this beginning to seem like an exercise in contrary-ism, I often find myself not liking the cities I’m “supposed” to like, while preferring their less hyped rivals. In truth, this might have more to do with the fact that I have always had a conditioned reflex against hype of all kinds, in all walks of life. Thus, I guess that I was always going to be one of those oddballs who much preferred Toronto over Montreal. In fairness, and unlike with Melbourne and Sydney, there isn’t much to distinguish the two Canadian giants vis-à-vis appearances – although even the most die-hard Montreal lovers would probably own that Toronto’s lake-front profile gives it the edge in looks. No, it wasn’t the appearance of Toronto that got under my skin so much as, like Melbourne, it has that almost tangible zing of a happening, swinging town, in stark contrast to Montreal’s overwhelming atmosphere of stale lethargy. Moreover (and this also resembled the Aussie cities), whereas Toronto felt confident and assured, Montreal felt arrogant and complacent.

TEL AVIV AND JERUSALEM – Of the six example cities discussed here, I know these two the best. Having lived in Israel on two occasions and having spent months of my life in both towns, not only do I understand their “todays”, I also have a first-hand knowledge, going back half-a-century of how they got there. For all sorts of obvious, geo-political, geo-religious and geo-cultural reasons (far too complex and difficult to enter into here) Jerusalem is not so much a city, as an agglomeration of fractious urban communities, crammed uncomfortably into a relatively small area. For all its stunning beauty, this has been Jerusalem’s problem for the best part of the past 2000 years, and doesn’t look like resolving anytime soon. Everything about Tel Aviv however, exists in the starkest of all contrasts. While Jerusalem could be as much as four-thousand years old, Tel Aviv is barely one hundred! Whereas Jerusalem is defined by religion and cultural conservatism, Tel Aviv is aggressively secular and culturally progressive (in the good, true sense of the term!). While Jerusalem is aesthetically exquisite, Tel Aviv is an urban dichotomy of 20th century ramshackle and dusty, and 21st century jagged and shiny. The two cities could not be more different, and reveal the two faces of Israel. Which face the visitor prefers will depend much upon their own peculiar political and religious sensibilities. As for me, these days, in beautiful Jerusalem I feel disconcerted, saddened and alienated, while in ugly Tel Aviv, I feel energised and optimistic, and very much at home.

*Apologies to residents and fans of cities like Chicago and Vancouver, who could justifiably argue that in North American terms at least, I have overlooked these towns equally valid competing statures to those named – perhaps in the interest of preserving my hypothesis. However, while there can be no doubting either city’s cultural and commercial importance and influence, in a broad metropolitan sense, not to mention for sheer industrial and commercial might, they are dwarfed by the cities mentioned.

A BREAKFAST WITH A VIEW…and a small window onto Tel Aviv

As a rule I avoid posting travel diary-type articles on the hoof. For one thing, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. In journalistic terms I’ve always been more of an opinion piece writer than a roving reporter. However, the piece I was preparing for this particular post has gone the way of the defunct memory stick I’ve just thrown into the trash and so I was forced, just this once, into doing something spontaneous.

Fortunately I just happen to be based for these last few days in a place perfectly suited to spontaneous outbursts of all types; pictorial, literary and just about any other format one cares to imagine. For, if constant change, municipal renewal and incessant architectural upheaval are the mothers of urban reinvention, then Tel Aviv must surely rank as a grand civic matriarch.

As a regular periodic visitor to Israel’s cultural and commercial first city for the past fifty years my mind’s eye (not to mention my various cameras) has become a kind of time-lapse observer of  Tel Aviv’s astonishing physical evolution. And while this is not the place to attempt a full description of that development (it requires a long book) I have over the three years or so of this blog attempted to give at least an occasional impression – in words and pictures – of what I’ve witnessed and continue to see.

Because this addition to that “series” is so unplanned (I didn’t even bring a camera on the trip and had to rely on my iPhone for the images), I’m hoping that in its own small, colourful way it will more faithfully transmit some of the atmosphere of this amazing coastal city.

These pictures are all taken from rooftop breakfast decks of our otherwise unremarkable little downtown hotel. I think they offer a distinct, technicolor and interestingly optimistic Tel Aviv tableaux…

 

TEL AVIV MEMORIES

A small gallery of images of Tel Aviv from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Colourful, ramshackle, exotic and cosmopolitan even then, the seeds were well sewn for the exciting, “happening” city we know today…

(camera used: Nikon FE with Ektachrome and Agfachrome)

ARK – excerpts – Part 1

I PRESENT HERE THE FIRST IN SERIES OF TEN EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

ARK

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

“ … Creator of all things above and below … Thou art the One, Creator of all that is, the One; the only One …”                    

 Egyptian hymn to Amun-Re   

“…Blessed be He, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth…He is our God; There is no other.” 

‘Alenu’, ancient Hebrew prayer

BEGINNING

‘Coño! This had better be good José―damn good!’

‘Don’t worry Alex! This is beyond good.’

‘Beyond good?’

‘Beyond my powers of description at any rate―but what the hell took you so long getting here?’

‘All flights out of Almeria were cancelled because of the storms―I had to get the bus up here―that’s what the hell took me so long! Anyway, I’m here now, so why don’t you just show me what all this fuss is about and  then I’ll let you know if  it was worth my while spending the last twelve hours aggravating my haemorrhoids on a wooden seat on a clapped out coach with no suspension on the worst damn roads in Europe!’

‘Just wait till you see it. You won’t believe your eyes.’

The tall, youthful, blond haired José Sanchez grabbed the slightly older, shorter, dark haired Alex Martinez by the arm and guided him energetically down an alley way into a small stone courtyard.

‘Here it is Alex’ José said pointing eagerly towards a large rectangular hole next to which was a neat mound of rubble and dirt. ‘Look at that and then tell me I was wrong to call you. The moment we uncovered it I knew this was work for you…’ José stopped talking for a moment when he saw Alex’s face, then said ‘I told you didn’t I?’

At first Alex could not speak. His mouth fixed open in amazement, his hands on his hips, his head shaking in sheer disbelief at what he was looking at. Then, after a minute or so he took off his spectacles and cleaned them with his shirt. Still shaking his head, squinting into the pit he said, almost lost for words, ‘Oh coño! A wonderful thing…a simply wonderful thing…’

1

It was late April 1974 when José had been commissioned by the department of antiquities to do the exploratory dig along the outside of the eastern wall of the 14th century Transito Synagogue in Toledo.

His original task had been to check the state of the foundations of the building but soon after his men began digging, the walls of what appeared to be a subterranean chamber were uncovered. By the following evening they had exposed the entire chamber.

It was in the form of a skewed rectangle, about eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide and ran lengthways roughly parallel with the rear of the synagogue. It was just over seven feet deep with a floor of exquisitely hand painted glazed turquoise-green tiles.

However, it was not the chamber itself that prompted José to approach The National Heritage Institute in Madrid and demand they summon Spain’s leading medievalist and archaeologist, Professor Alex Martinez as a matter of urgency. It was the additional discovery of a small structure standing within the sunken chamber.

It measured just over eight feet square at its base and stood a little more than five feet in height. It was in the form of a steep sided trapezoid; a flat roofed pyramid and constructed of large sand coloured limestone blocks.

With no floor of its own the structure sat on the tiles of the host chamber as a solid canopy. The narrow seam between the base of the structure and the tiled floor was sealed with mortar.

Now, as Alex Martinez peered into the chamber for the first time, and as José had correctly predicted, he found it hard to believe what was before him.

It was not merely the beauty of the structure sitting on the sumptuous tiled floor; it was the fact it existed at all, there, in that place, from that time.

To his certain knowledge, outside of cemeteries trapezoid constructions were unheard of anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Roman era. To discover one like this in near perfect condition, apparently dating to the Middle Ages was, in both archaeological and historical terms, a revelation. But in addition to its uniqueness, there were several intriguing features of the structure itself.

It had no doorway or normal access point of any kind.

Yet, at some time since its completion in the thirteen hundreds someone had gained access to its interior by removing the roof.

The now exposed interior space was just over five foot square at floor level.                              The surface of its inner walls was elaborately panelled in hardwood overlaid in an opulently thick layer of pure gold leaf.

The wall blocks were eighteen inch thick ashlar, apparently cut with stone flints rather than iron or steel chisels.

And most intriguing of all was a faint blue inscription on the right-hand cornerstone on the east facing outside wall.

Although Alex could not decipher it he remembered enough from his time as a student volunteer on digs in Israel to recognise the language of the writing. It was with a fair degree of astonishment he observed that the words were written in a script dating back to many centuries before Christ. The inscription on the cornerstone was in early Hebrew.

The instant he saw the inscription Alex knew that he required additional specialist expertise both to determine its date and meaning and also to help him unravel the other mysteries of the canopy’s construction.

To that end, the next day after he had first assembled his own team of archaeology students from the local university to begin the task of further investigating the site, he sent a photograph of the inscription together with samples of the stone and the timber and gold panelling up to the Department of Antiquities in Madrid for analysis.

However, there were two more aspects related to the state of the site itself and the condition of the canopy which were not merely intriguing to Alex but which he also found vaguely troubling.

Alex was familiar with the reports of all the restorations and excavations done at the synagogue since the time it had been used by Napoleon’s troops as a barracks during the Peninsula War and none of them mentioned the sunken chamber or the canopy. Yet, from the loose condition of the dirt fill and the fact it consisted mostly of aggregate typically used in modern road making Alex determined that the site had been covered over during the 1964 works, just ten years earlier.

As he observed and supervised the students going about their various tasks in and around the canopy he pondered why such a remarkable discovery was never publicised and why had it then been covered over again? ‘Could it be’ he wondered, ‘something to do with the other element of the puzzle? The fact that the removal of the roof also dated to the 1964 works…’

2

‘I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that out’ Alex told a colleague over tapas later that evening in Madrid bar.

‘How can you be so sure?’ queried the colleague.

‘Because of this non-medieval artefact I found on the floor inside.’ From his briefcase Alex produced a twelve inch flat headed drill bit with a broken tip. ‘Whoever removed the roof used this’ he stated placing the bit on the bar. ‘So far as I know they didn’t have pneumatic drills in the fourteenth century.’

His colleague looked suitably intrigued.

‘And that’s not all’ added Alex. ‘We also found ropes and a crowbar.’

‘Quite a tool kit!’

‘All the tools required in fact for lifting off the loosened roof and preventing it from crashing down onto whatever was inside the canopy. Most of the roof is still intact on the floor of the host chamber.’

‘But wouldn’t it have been simpler to cut through the side walls?’

‘No. Whoever did this tested the thickness of the stones first. There are probe holes drilled into both the walls and the roof and the roof stones are only a quarter of the thickness of the wall blocks. It made perfect sense to go through the roof—far less work and much less risk to whatever was inside.’

‘Have you told the people at the department about this?’

‘I haven’t had time yet.  I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.’

But the next morning something happened that caused Alex to reconsider this line of action.

When he arrived in his office at the institute, there on his desk barely a day after he had submitted the samples for examination was a thin dog-eared envelope with the words “analysis results” scrawled across the front in biro.

The slim envelope instantly set alarm bells off in Alex’s head. He knew that meaningful reports took weeks and more often months to complete and would be presented in the form of a weighty file. But when he then read the note contained within the envelope his alarm turned to dismay:

Dear Professor Martinez,

Following careful examination we find nothing remarkable to report with regard to the nature of the stone, the timber or the graffito at the Transito site.

In the light of these unexceptional findings it has been decided to resume the engineering works to the synagogue’s eastern wall in the interests of securing the building with immediate effect.

The Department thanks you and your team for all your efforts in this matter.

Sincerely,

Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities

Alex immediately telephoned his main contact at the department, the medieval projects manager Miguel Garcia.

Garcia claimed tersely that he knew nothing about it and refused to put him through to Ruiz saying that the director was busy. He then offered Alex a piece of ‘friendly advice’ to ‘drop the whole thing.’

Alex reminded Garcia that he had ‘uncovered a site of potentially great importance to the cultural heritage of Spain and that ‘both as an archaeologist and a patriot he was bound to publish a full site report.’

‘Nevertheless’ Garcia told him, ‘do not under any circumstances publish a report.’

To which Alex replied; ‘You mean like the people who discovered the structure in 1964?’

For several seconds there was silence at the other end of the phone. Then Garcia asked; ‘How the hell do you know that it was discovered in 1964? How can you know that?’

‘I’m trained to know these things Miguel’ he replied surprised at the effectiveness of his gambit. ‘It’s what the government pays me for. Now would you be so kind as to tell me what this all about? What’s with all the fucking secrecy?’

Alex’s swearing had an incendiary effect on Garcia. ‘There’s no fucking secrecy!’ he yelled. ‘No fucking anything! Just a fucking boring, fucking meaningless little fucking structure…’

Meaningless!’ Alex cried back. ‘A structure unique in Iberian medieval architecture decorated with enough solid gold to shame the tomb of the average Pharaoh! A structure moreover in perfect condition—except for the fact ten years ago someone removed its roof and then covered it over again as if nothing had happened? If that’s meaningless then I’m a Dutchman!’

‘Alex, I’m telling you again as a friend’ Miguel said quietly, almost pleading, ‘just forget all about this. It’s all a mistake, a bloody great cock-up!’

‘A mistake? What do you mean a mistake?’

‘The excavation Alex—the excavation was a mistake. It should never have been sanctioned. Whoever ticked off on the excavation didn’t know. He didn’t know about the original works in 64. But now they’ve found the old records and it should never have been sanctioned. The Caudillo himself is raising hell here Alex. Please, please just let it go.’

Both the desperation in Garcia’s voice and the mention of Franco were disturbing. Alex had always enjoyed a cordial and constructive working relationship with Miguel Garcia. He’d found him to be an affable chap always willing to go that extra mile for a colleague. This exchange was totally out of character.

‘Listen Miguel, I don’t want to make problems for you. I just want…I just need to know one thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’

‘What is it?’

‘Whoever took the roof off the canopy found something inside it and whatever it was they removed it in a big hurry…’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Why else would they have deserted nearly half a ton of gold panelling? They must have found something so…so hot…’

Hot?’

‘I don’t know Miguel! Hot, incredible, astonishing―something so precious in some way that they ignored the gold and covered up their tracks in a rush.’

Garcia did not respond. Alex could hear him breathing heavily down the phone.

‘I won’t write anything Miguel. No report. But please just tell me what was inside the structure?’

After another few seconds Garcia eventually said in a low weary voice; ‘Nothing Alex…they found absolutely nothing.’

‘You swear to me that’s the truth Miguel? You’re telling me that the Caudillo is getting all worked up over nothing because you’re acting like they found the fucking Holy Grail or something?’ Again silence at the other end of the phone.

Calmly now, he repeated the question; ‘Miguel. Do you swear to me that what you just told me is the truth?’

Garcia hung up without answering.

SUN, SEA & SAND – 1

A GROUP OF OLD MARITIME SUNSET IMAGES, FROM RHODES, SINAI, ISRAEL, CHILE AND FRANCE IN “GOUACHE” FORM…

 …more recent ones to follow shortly: