Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

You know, I dream about going back to Australia.

 

PRIDE OF THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

Guy Lillian


art by Charlie Williams

 Sydney was a celebration of the Arts. Of the four cities on our Australian journey, Sydney was the busiest, noisiest - a Chicago downunder; an antipodal New York. But if there was a common element to our experiences there, it was, indeed, Art.


As if to get us into the mood, our train from Canberra traversed a slew of aesthetic sights - the Goulburn tower, the streets of Bundanoon, and acres of sheep sheep sheep, fleeing in great puffy waves from the iron horse choochooing through their midst. I kept my eyes out the window, trying to catch sight of the last marvel we hoped to see during our DUFF excursion - Sydney Harbour. I had to settle for a second's glimpse of the "coathanger" bridge. Then the towers of Australia's most populous city rose about us.


After exploring the high-ceilinged train station, we were met by Nick Stathopoulos, 1986 DUFF winner, 1999 Hugo nominee, and our patient host. Barely a week had gone by since Nick had last put up, and put up with, unexpected visitors, but he was a former DUFF delegate himself, and a trooper. He conveyed us to his grandmother's terrace in Sydney's bohemian district, Paddington, a home he was in the process of renovating. He apologized for the "Dickensian" mess of the place, but our bedroom was comfortable and wherever we turned - even in the laundry room - a clever sculpture or a powerful painting came under view. Nick is, as everyone downunder knows, a professional artist of profound ability and humor. In fact, we had to squeeze past a huge self-portrait in his entryway.

Though we'd see a lot of Sydney on our visit, Nick told us, we wouldn't see much of Sydney fandom. There wasn't much Sydney fandom to see. It was fragmented, he said, and uncommunicative. As we sat at his kitchen table, however, sampling tasty jams made from his backyard cumquats, Nick himself was anything but. He listened to our tale of Hanging Rock, inquired about the Natcon we'd attended in Perth (he's won a shelf-ful of Ditmar Awards), and chatted about his artistic career. He showed us the contrast between the Australian version of a book cover he'd done and the American. The vast difference in quality was not to America's benefit. Of course, with the Iraqi war just underway, we also touched on the real world. Nick opened our eyes further to the vast distinction between the way America sees W's hideous adventure, and the world's perspective - a world of difference indeed.


One neatness: long ago, he told us, Nick had passed his exams to become, of all horrors, an attorney. But he was saved from the barrister's life of despair and travail. As he descended the stairs from signing his license, he'd been met by a friend, who asked if he wanted to paint mattes for Star Wars. He's never looked back.


Outside on the street as sleep overcame us, we heard cats, dogs, people…


... children's voices, and small planes. Daylight. Morning. We were anxious to move. Sights awaited us in Sydney that had roiled in our dreams for many years.


When we hit the streets, Nick led us onto a bus headed for the most famous area of Sydney: The Domain. His excitement grew as we approached the Art Museum of New South Wales. After all, he had a painting hanging there.


Every year Australian artists compete for the Archibald Prize in portraiture. Nick's submission had been one of the 32 finalists. His work was undoubtedly the most popular on display - it had made the feature page of the local newspaper and had the most avid crowds grouped before it. "Here's Mr. Squiggle" depicted the puppet star of an adored kids' show - still on the air after umpteen dozen years - in the gentle paternal embrace of his genius creator, Norman Hetherington. It's a sweet, jolly piece; later, Nick volunteered to autograph museum postcard reproductions to auction for DUFF.


After photographing the smiling artist in front of his charming work (much to the museum's displeasure), we took a quick tour of the other galleries - including a number of pieces by (note this well) Norman Lindsay. My favorite painting: George Lambert's "Across the Black Soil Plains", a team of packhorses pulling a wagon across the outback. It resounded of Australia to me, and the finest quality we Americans share with it: the frontier. Then we were off, through squads of joggers, through the Woolloomooloo Gate and into the Royal Botanic Gardens.


The Gardens are a wide expanse of elegant horticulture cut with manicured pathways, a remarkable urban forest. Nick tapped me to indicate a tall pine hanging with huge, sinister fruit - bats; flying foxes. Beneath lower branches spiders the size of a woman's hand spun webs elaborate and deadly. One specimen stood alone within a cylindrical cage: the rarer than rarer than rare Wollemi Pine, one of only 38 known in the world. Safe as it was from nefarious nurseries seeking cuttings, I rather felt sorry for the little Wollemi - trees should be touched, smelled, climbed. Or walked around - like the Wishing Tree, just down the path: circle it three times forward and thrice backward, and you'll get your wish. We did it. So far, so good - Rose-Marie is still with me.


We stopped at a café to eat, talk about Batman and laugh at the ibises who leapt atop the tables to scrounge among the dirty dishes. We figured their curved beaks had evolved to poke into take-away (Australian for "take-out") containers. Lunch over, we walked to the end of the Bennelong Peninsula, the glorious harbor spreading before us. Nick pointed out a ship seized by the Australian Navy which had been hauling drugs for North Korea. Then we rounded a corner and there it stood.


I cursed the dullness of my mind. For such an experience, every sense should be needle sharp. There had been many sites I had wanted to visit during DUFF. Two were essential: Hanging Rock - and the Sydney Opera House.

It's one of the most famous buildings in the world, strikingly modern, exciting and original, exotic, beautiful. Wowed to our teeth, Rosy & I paid for a tour - the guide's name was Gillian ("Guide Gillian," right). Sitting in the vast concert hall, a space dominated by the largest mechanical organ in the world, ten thousand pipes, we got the lowdown literally from the inside out.


In the late 1950s, we learned, someone noticed the Bennelong peninsula of solid sandstone jutting into Sydney Harbour, hard adjacent to the "Coathanger" Bridge. The space, then occupied by a tram station, seemed the perfect site for a cultural center, which would serve as a symbol of the city. That decided, a competition was held for its design.


Most of the 233 entries were complex and detailed blueprints - but one was a mere drawing. The Danish architect Jorn Utzon had been inspired by the many sailboats cruising Sydney Harbour, and put forward a simple sketch - this one. The Aussies were, in a word, wowed. On the basis of that single drawing, Utzon won the contract to build the most famous edifice in the southern hemisphere.


The Sydney Opera House had a design - but no real plan. Bringing Utzon's scribble to solid reality presented challenge after challenge. For instance, the arched concert halls. The sail-like arches - chunks from a sphere - were only susceptible to Lego-like, segmented fabrication - a million-plus ceramic tiles, triple-glazed off-white so as not to blind onlookers. With such hassles abounding, it took 14 years to build the Sydney Opera House, and cost over a hundred million dollars, Australian. It was financed by a lottery. But the result is a wonder.


The complex fills its cultural duties magnificently - five theatres! - but its history is not without controversy. Both Nick and Gillian described the conflict before the SOH opened between operatic and orchestral factions, each demanding the largest hall. The orchestra won - and its enormous theatre features unmatched acoustics, abetted by soft timber ceilings and sound-deadening rings over the stage, their purpose to protect players from the distraction of their own music. Apparently there is no superior example of the science of sound on that side of the planet. The opera theatre seemed too small for a full-scale Broadway musical, but the designers had built its stage deep to compensate for the lack of wings. One had to imagine how Carmen would resonate in such an intimate setting, for the only music from the stage that day was the clamor of stagehands, erecting a set.


However fascinating the history and interior of the SOH, it was the exterior that kept us enraptured. We eyed and photographed those thrilling arches from every conceivable angle, dazzled by one of the last century's ultimate architectural achievements. It dominated our days in Sydney as it dominated the Harbour itself, drawing attention from every other charm the city had to offer. More than once, prowling about it, Rosy turned to me, or I turned to her, to say "Look where we are!"


But it was also the source of lament. Before, the Sydney Opera House was a dream, a fantasy, an unattainable corner of paradise, as distant as the stars in the Southern Cross. Now, the dream was a place. A sign by a stairway lacked a few letters. The men's room needed toilet paper. A beautiful place, an incredible place, a unique and marvelous place - but a dream no longer. Now, the Sydney Opera House is a building ... and we've been there.


We walked around the Harbour, where multitudinous tourist boats dock, and underneath the staggeringly huge Harbour Bridge, where, Nick said, scenes from Dark City had been filmed. We wandered the Rocks, Sydney's tony shopping and restaurant district, and flaked at various shoppes until Nick's favorite Japanese restaurant opened. With conversation about SF (Rosy) and sketching (Nick), the day slid into night. We thought we had exhausted our awe. Hahaha.


Nick began our day by presenting Rosy with a Neville clone. Neville is a koala bear, two inches long, who grips the visor on Rosy's SUV (okay, he's a toy). We forgot to bring him to Australia (Mib the Panda had to stand in for all our stuffed animals) but this cousin was most welcome. He wore a blue vest marked "Melbourne", and Nick suggested she name him that, but Rosy prefers "Sydney," since that's where he comes from. (As I write Sydney sits atop our bedroom chest of drawers, holding fast to a skinny vase of metal flowers, the tackiest - and my favorite - wedding present from my first trip down the aisle.)


Stathopoulos returned us to the train station for our next epic journey - west, into the Blue Mountains. We had been assured: any stop in Sydney would be wasted which did not include a trip into the midst of those mountains, and the home of Marilyn Pride and Lewis Morley. They were Nick's best friends and DUFF compatriots, and since he wanted us out of the way so he could prepare for a weekend convention, he was glad to set up our visit. How glad we were that he did.


Up we chugged out of the suburbs and into the mountains, rounded and wooded - much more like the Smokies than the younger Rockies. Though our train stopped at many suburban towns on the way, we got a definite sense of country; perhaps not the outback wilderness Rosy so wanted to see, but definitely, the city was left behind.


Marilyn met us at the train station with Leela, an adorable pup named for a companion of Dr. Who. Marilyn was familiar - she, Nick and her husband Lewis had been DUFF delegates to Confederation, the Atlanta worldcon in 1986. Long of hair and skirt, she seemed the eternal Earth Mother as she walked us up the hill to their abode. There we found their cool fannish friend Sue Batho - and a house of wonders.


It would have been an astonishing place even with a mundane household - built as it was on a beautiful wooded hillside, with gorgeous crimson rosellas - parrots - mooching grain from plates left on the verandah. Within, earth colors, huge round windows, and wooden walls and furnishings blended the house into the nature about it. But there was little natural about the décor. A bust of Yoda sat on a bookcase. A unicorn skull hung from the central support beam. The head of the boar from Razorback loomed over the bathroom door, and everywhere, demons and monsters surged from the walls.

 

All fibreglass and latex. Lewis is a special effects artist, as well as a first class carpenter, and most of the frights on their walls and shelves were props from films he's worked on. (In fact, that was why he wasn't here; he was in Sydney, making an alien tuba for a scene in the next Star Wars.) In Marilyn's very Australian term, they had "heaps of stuff," and cool, scary stuff it was, too.


In the basement, where Lewis and Marilyn have their studios and workrooms, the heaps were stuffed onto dozens of shelves and hung from every pillar and post . Toy robots, dinosaurs, puppets, bones and Marilyn's righteous comic book art. She led us into basement rooms where twisted latex Igors fought for space with aliens and demons… I was utterly enraptured, and Rosy was impressed, but she wondered how anyone could sleep in a house so liberally adorned with horrors. Easily, methought - all the nightmares were on the walls!


It would have taken a lot to expel me from a haven of such imaginative delights. Words that could were, "Norman Lindsay's house? That's right down the road."


The artistic sentiment that took me to the movie Sirens came straight from the lizard brain. I wanted to see Elle MacPherson naked. Truly, it was a sight worth the foreknowledge of death. But the film had a serious point, celebrating the sensualism of the great artist Norman Lindsay, on whose estate it was made. That estate, his home, studio and gallery, was indeed right down the road from Marilyn's house, and Sue drove us there, a place instantly recognizable, a place almost supernaturally joyous.


A beautiful one-story house on a hilltop dotted with statuary - a satyr grasping at a nymph - a crouching sphinx - mermaids cavorting in a fountain with fabulous oceanic steeds. Some are Lindsay's originals, cement molded over chicken wire, and some replacement bronze copies, cast to preserve the great man's work from the elements. Lindsay spent 60 of his 90 years here, and the place bulges with his passion and his talent - oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors, furniture, ship models, books. The children's stories he wrote and illustrated, like The Magic Pudding, are classics, but let's face it, it was his contemplation and reproduction of the undraped female form divine that lives on in our minds and hearts.


Lindsay's nudes are neither the insipid dreamgirls of Playboy nor Hustler's raunchy gynecological exhibitionists. His soft but defiant figures possess strength and power as well as stunning sexuality. Check out Ladies of Olympus or The Amazons or my personal favorite, Solly. These aren't weak or pliant people. These are women you have to win - women of confidence and substance. They compel your commitment, to them and to life in the world. Their rendering influenced Frazetta and Finlay, I am told, and they influence artists of today - Nick, for instance, called the house at Springwood one of his favorite places on Earth. If it's a pagan effect they produce, then so be it: Lindsay's instincts sing to the soul.


Among the pen sketches on display were two drawings done 40 years apart - the last when Lindsay was quite elderly. It was sharper, funnier (humor rollicks about this artist), more complex… this guy's genius just kept on growing. In his studio, abandoned in 1969, the year of Lindsay's death, two unfinished paintings sat on easels, as if awaiting the return of the artist's brush. They made me want to cry. He wrote a wonderful epigram into The Magic Pudding - one we could adopt for the whole of our DUFF experience: "Who would have thought there was so much to see in the world?"


We were not finished. The work of an even greater artist awaited us.


Sue drove us to the end of a road out amongst the low brush of the bush. We stepped over the barrier and walked along the rutted, puddly dirt path to a sandstone platform - broad, relatively flat. Sandstone is soft and teenagers have been carving names and dates and rude messages there for decades. Beyond…


Beyond was the incredible expanse of the Jamison Valley. The view stretched from Mount Solitary, miles opposite, to the Three Sisters rock formation, miles to our right. Thick and green was the valley below, and I mean below; the cliff face was without rail, and sharp, and sheer, and the treetops from which the bell birds sent forth their penetrating tinks were hundreds of feet down. How far across to Mount Solitary, bare rock broken by growth - the mountain on which the Sirens of the film had given us its last, unforgettable image? I say miles. It seemed infinite.


I approached the edge. A long way down - one step more and I'd learn all there was to know about infinity. And wasn't that a wrecked car nestled amongst the trees? I scrambled back, begging Rosy to do the same - but she and Marilyn had more nerve than Sue or me. They approached the precipice on hands and knees and peered over. "There are three wrecked cars down there!"


We moved on to the Wentworth Falls, another site replete with awesome scenery and charm. Marilyn related fairy stories about its Banksia trees and I spotted a single kookaburra, sittin' in its old gum tree. We drove to the touristy town of Leura, and a sensibly railed observation platform by The Three Sisters, stone monoliths reminiscent of the great columns which flank the Grand Canyon. Bell birds kept up their uneven percussive symphony from the valley below. Finally, as night was upon us, Sue led us to another abutment of sandstone, literally behind her house, where centuries before aborigines had carved images of their sacred tribal totem - the emu. We shone torchlight onto the etched outlines, eying eternity in those works of men long dust. They'd cast their faith into material they felt would last forever. Well, blokes ... so far, so good.


The incredible day was all but done. Our friends - and they were that, now - returned us to the station. While we awaited our train back to Sydney we dined at a pizzeria run by a pretty blonde and her daughters. The tables came with crayons so customers could draw on the placemats, and the walls were covered with the efforts of previous vacationers and visitors, local teenagers and other members of Australia's friendly and happy people. Not etched in stone, nor worth millions, maybe, but to us, more great Australian art. 

 

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