The Binding – Bridget Collins

January 24, 2020 at 12:48 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Binding is apparently a genre called ‘magical realism’, which seems like an oxymoron to me, but hey. It was a Christmas present, and I read it over the holidays. It’s set in a sort of quasi-19th-century parallel universe, where books are not as we know them – rather they are magical objects, created by ‘Binders’, and they contain real human memories. If you go to a Binder and have your memories put into a book, then those memories are erased from your mind. I thought this premise was quite intriguing, and certainly quite thought provoking.

The book is in three parts, and it revolves around to main characters (and is told in their voices) – Emmett Farmer, a farmer’s son, and Lucian Darnay, the privileged son of a wealthy industrialist.

The first part of the book is, I thought, slow going. It’s full of those ‘you aren’t allowed to know that’ tropes that can be intriguing, but actually sort of got so piled on they were in the way of the story. Anyway, eventually the real nature of books is revealed, and Emmett ends up, after a feverish illness, apprenticed to a Binder in a remote spot far away from civilization.

The backstory to this is revealed in part two, which is the best part of the book, I think. It’s a love story, although not a conventional one, quite nicely told.

Part three gets very dark; the sinister underbelly of this bucolic society is revealed and the role of Binding in hiding abusive behaviour is revealed. There were some exciting parts in this, but I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. Your mileage may vary.

Looking at reviews, this seems to be a book you either love or hate. I sort of mostly liked it, which I suppose puts me in the middle. If you like magical realism, then I think you would like this book. The premise is intriguing, the alternative world that Collins creates is sophisticated, well drawn and full of colour and detail, and the characters are vivid and alive. All this is a joy to read. But there are some niggles; some slow points, some internal inconsistencies and some pacing issues that prevented me, at least, from fully immersing myself into this book.

 

Arnott’s Shapes – sausage sizzle flavour

January 15, 2020 at 20:29 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment

Ahhh, The sausage sizzle. Such an iconic Australian thing. On the approach to almost any supermarket, DIY store or school event you can start to smell it; the burnt grease, cheap meat and frying onion aroma. Then it comes into view; a bunch of burly men burning sausages on a large, flat BBQ with the women put to work taking gold coin donations, pointing people towards the sauce bottles and shouting ‘two with onions’ to the men behind them.

It is, without doubt, Australia’s national dish. A sausage (or ‘snag’), on a slice of white bread, with onions on the top, with either tomato or ideally BBQ sauce. You might also have American-style mustard on it, but this is considered a bit avante-guarde and suspicious. If it’s a really posh sizzle they might even give you a bread roll – not a hot-dog roll though (goodness, NO), but a Vietnamese crusty roll from a local baker. This roll, of offered, is undoubtedly the best part of the whole assemblage. But the true-blue Aussie will prefer a soggy slice of white bread every time.

Australian’s take the sausage sizzle extremely seriously. One only has to look at opposition leader Bill Shorten’s faux-pas with a sausage to understand how he lost the ‘unloseable’ election in a shock defeat, never having regained the nation’s trust after that event. National DIY chain Bunnings caused outrage and boycotts when they suggested the onions should be placed underneath the sausage (sacrilege!). Even a relative benign suggestion from a top Aussie chef Adam Liaw on how to make the bread fit better caused online outrage.

And so it is into these shark-infested waters Arnott’s boldly tread with their ‘Sausage Sizzle’ range of Shapes biscuits. I guess they are emboldened by the success of their Vegemite shapes, which are truly terrific, and are scouring other Australiana to exploit. (There’s also a Meat Pie flavour that I will come to in due course).

The box features the iconic comestible. They’ve avoided the obvious tripwires – the sausage is diagonal, it is on a regular slice of white bread, the onions are on top, it has BBQ sauce. Yet I’m a bit suspicious about that BBQ sauce. A wavy line piped on top of the sausage? Seems a bit fancy to me. Everyone knows you just squirt it along the edge of the sausage. I hope Arnott’s are equipped to deal with the backlash. #saucegate

Anyway, what do they taste like? To be honest, it’s not a bad representation, in taste terms, of the sausage sizzle. Their taste teams have really done a first-class job here; there is sausage, onion and a hint of sweet sauce to be made out, which is quite remarkable. It’s not quite up to WIlly Wonka standards, but it’s pretty good.

Yet somehow this doesn’t work. I think it is the mismatch between the texture and the taste. A sausage sizzle is soft and pappy. These are crunchy biscuits. There’s a cognitive dissonance there which I couldn’t quite get over. So they are OK, but somehow not great. I’m going to give them six out of ten, with a bonus point for flavour ingenuity.

Postscript

I almost forgot – these shapes also have Tasmania flavoured ones in there. When they launched the Vegemite version, Arnott’s were desperately trying to court controversy (or perhaps head one off) with some half-baked campaign around Tassie being missing from the biscuit shape (Tasmania is, for international readers, an island somewhere down near Antarctica that is apparently part of Australia). As far as I know this attempt to spark attention on social media utterly failed, but they are still flogging it, this time by including Tasmania. Give it up, guys. No-one cares.

 

Teenagers on bikes

January 11, 2020 at 20:39 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment

We recently went on holiday, down to the south coast. We got caught up in the bushfire crisis on NYE, and it was extremely scary. I did write a blog post about it, but it’s rather personal and not about bicycles, books or biscuits, so it has a password. If you’d like to read it, drop me a line and I might give you the password, but please don’t be offended if I don’t (and if you do know me, the password is my surname).

Anyway, there was one positive bicycle-related aspect of the whole experience. You see, we were cut off in a situation with no electricity, internet or phone coverage. So our devices were pretty much useless, and in any case soon ran out of battery.

What was really interesting about this was the number of kids who, with apparently nothing else to do, rode around the neighbourhood on bikes. There were few cars on the road (as there as nowhere to go), but there were hordes of bikes. It seemed every child over ten who was staying in one of the many caravan parks in the area took to their bike and went for a ride. It was very noticeable.

And virtually none of them were wearing helmets.

Who would have thought. Take away the devices, take away the cars, make the ‘rules’ seem irrelevant and suddenly bikes are everywhere. It was like the 1970s all over again.

It was a small thing in the midst of a very anxious situation, but it was enough to at least for me to give a wry smile.

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Old new cleats

December 10, 2019 at 18:10 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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My cleat wore out. It was getting harder and harder to engage with the pedal, and then one evening it just would not go in, and I had to limp home sort of one-legged.

Looking at the cleat, I could see why. It was trashed. This was the cleat from my left shoe. I’m right foot dominant, so it’s my left foot I put down when I stop. And so that cleat gets trashed much faster than the right. Indeed, my right cleat was still in reasonably good shape.

Actually, there’s a subtext to this story. I am really bad at unclipping with my right foot. I just don’t do it. I used to get concerned about it, and practise, but then I gave up. And if I need to get my right foot out in a hurry I fumble, like a beginner. It’s a clipstack waiting to happen. But then, I’ve been like this for about fifteen years, and I haven’t had a clipstack for at least ten. Hey ho.

Anyway, I needed to ride to work; there’s a bike shop on the way where I can pick up new cleats. But I couldn’t easily ride there with only one working shoe. But then I dimly remembered something – when I last replaced the cleats, I kept the (less worn) right hand one, for just this reason – so I could replace the left one when it wore out, and eke a bit more mileage out of them.

I dug around in the shed for a while, and (amazingly) managed to find it. Hurrah! So I can ride again.

I still haven’t bought new cleats though. Probably I’ll forget until this cleat is too worn to engage….

First puncture. And second, third and forth…

November 23, 2019 at 10:23 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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So Chillikebab jnr got a puncture. All a bit unlucky, she hasn’t had her new bike long. No problem, I thought – and an opportunity to do some bike maintenance education.

After some quick googling on how to get the wheel off (I’m not familiar with hub gears, but as it turns out it’s pretty easy to remove) Chillikebab Jnr and I got the wheel off. Getting the tyre off was very hard; it was super tight. Chillikebab jnr was losing interest, and I managed to get it off with the tyre levers – although I had a suspicion that I’d caught the inner tube in the process.

Checking the tube, I found the hole – and it was obviously where I had pinched it with the tyre levers. I checked for other holes in a bowl of water, but there didn’t appear to be any others. Strange. We patched this hole (“leave the glue a bit longer – a bit longer…!) and carefully checked inside the tyre for any sharp object. Couldn’t find anything, so put it all back together.

Wow, that tyre was extremely hard to get on. No way I was going to do it with my thumbs, even going around the tyre, seating it properly, stretching it around, all the usual tricks. So I had to resort to tyre levers, but managed to get it on..

I pimped it up, and all seemed well. But an hour later, it was flat again. Hmmm. Did I pinch the tube again putting it on?

I removed it again, with similar struggles. Checked where the air leak was and it was coming from around the patch. We had somehow not got the patch in the right place, and air was leaking out. So I had to pull off the patch, and redo it. By this time, Chillikebab Jnr had completely lost interest.

Put it all back together. Tyre again so tight. Had to use levers. Horrible feeling I have this time pinched the inner tube. The inner tube, in my defence, was really fat for the tyre, and hard to seat properly during this operation.

Pump it up again. No joy; it still has a leak. Take it apart again. Yes, I can see where I’ve pinched the tube. Patch it again. Put it on again. It’s hard again. Used levers again. Pinched the tube again. Pumped it up, went flat again.

By this time I was getting pretty frustrated. And so I gave up and went to the bike shop. They fixed it.

I feel my daughter’s faith in me as a bicycle technician has crumbled somewhat…

 

 

Storyland – Catherine McKinnon

October 28, 2019 at 16:47 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Storyland is the second novel by Catherine McKinnon, and is an ambitious novel created out of a palindromic interlinking of different short stories – all linked by place, but moving from 1796 to a distant dystopian future and back again. The stories are all very rooted in the place – the area around Lake Illawarra, a few hours south of Sydney. This sense of place is well grounded; it is a very Australian story, and takes inspiration I think from the Aboriginal concept of songlines – stories that relate places and traverse the land.

The first story is a reimagined account of Matthew Flinders exploratory voyage south from Sydney in a small boat, and his encounters with the local Aboriginal nation of that region. As the stories move forward through time, that connection with both the land and Aboriginal experiences of modern Australia continue.

Some of the stories work better than others, but they are all evocative and thought provoking. I would say however that not all of them land very satisfactorily, and I somehow wish the linkage between them had been somehow both more subtle and also more overt.

This is a god book that is worth reading – its interesting structure and rich evocations of Australia make it very worthwhile. Yet somehow for me it falls sort of being a really great book – it just seems to struggle a bit under the weight of it’s ambition.

Boris Bikes and Electric Scooters

October 19, 2019 at 14:33 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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We just can back from holiday. Three weeks seeing family and doing touristy things in London and Paris. Getting back on the fixie to ride to work was hard work when we got back – a few weeks off the bike, and goodness does it feel like hard work. Or perhaps it was just the jetlag.

Anyway, I manage to ride at least one bike whilst we were away – I went for a short hop on a Boris Bike. These are, of course, the share bikes that were introduced to London when Boris Johnston was Mayor of London. I have no time at all for Boris. He is a nasty piece of work. But he does ride a bicycle. Which I suppose does show that even the worst of us can have at least one redeeming feature.

So what was it like? Well, it was fine. It felt easier to ride that the Melbourne bikes (from what I can remember). And London is certainly getting more bike friendly – there are a lot of bike lanes, and a lot of bikes around. It is quite a transformation. There’s still a lot to do – whilst the bike lanes and paths are busy, there is a lot of dicing with traffic you have to do as a London cyclist. Still, Sydney could certainly learn a thing or two from their approach.

I didn’t ride a Velib in Paris, but again I saw a lot of cyclists. Come on Sydney, it’s not that hard! But actually outnumbering bicycles in Paris were electric scooters. There are a couple of different companies operating electric scooters, and they are everywhere – and it seems extremely popular. One of the companies who operate them is Lime, and as I have a Lime subscription here in Sydney, I wondered if it would extend to Paris scooters. It did! So I jumper on a scooter, and headed out into the traffic. I have never ridden an electric scooter before. And, in retrospect, choosing to do it in the centre of Paris was perhaps a bit ambitious. Part terrifying. part exhilarating, it certainly seems to have captured the hearts of Parisians, as they fearlessly weave in and out of the traffic. My biggest fear was the small wheels on the uneven Paris road surfaces – the thing just felt one pothole away from a stack. But it was fine, and everyone else seemed fine, so perhaps it’s just an unfamiliarity thing.

I don’t think e-scooters with come to Sydney. The government is too busy mandating helmets for scooters in general, and making electric ones illegal. Because, you know, can’t have people using practical, active urban transport. It’s for their own good, you understand. They should be in a car. Like everyone else.

 

New bicycle!

October 12, 2019 at 20:13 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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A momentous day! A new bicycle has appeared in the Chillikebab household. Sadly, not for me. But for Chillikebab Jnr 2. It seems only a few months ago I was putting her into a tiny seat, but now she has graduated to hew first real ‘proper’ bike – a 24 inch wheeled beauty with hub gears.

I remember by first 24 inch wheel bike. It was an Enfield racer, bright yellow. And it was freedom. It was the first bike that I could really go places on. The combination of being older and having a bike that could cover distances meant I could really go exploring. It was independence, fun and adventure.

I see some of the same things with Chillikebab Jnr 2. With this bike, she can bowl along. She now leaves her sister behind (who refuses to ride a bike, and sticks to her scooter) on the way to school. She can cover distances. She feels grown up.

But what she doesn’t have is the freedom. She can’t go off and explore the neighbourhood by herself on that bike. Why? Because selfish car drivers don’t want her too. They are too concerned with their own convenience to consider the way they restrict the freedoms of others. They swing around corners, ignore red lights, don’t look where they are going, park on footpaths, intimidate vulnerable road users, and generally make the environment so intimidating and dangerous that an eight year old cannot navigate it alone. This makes me cross.

Still, on a happier note we went for a much longer ride today – all the way around the Bay Run. Chillikebab Jnr 2 did fine – hardly even broke a sweat. And she (and I) both had a ball. So here’s to the joy of riding a bike.

Bike share shenanigans

September 16, 2019 at 10:47 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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The Melbourne bike share scheme is going to be scrapped. It was the first bike share scheme to be launched in Australia, and was the traditional sort with fixed rental stations. I did take a ride on it some time ago, but unless I get to Melbourne before the end of the year, that first ride will also be my last.

Of course, the post-mortems go on about why it failed – too few stations, too far apart, in the wrong places, not enough bike lanes, too expensive etc etc. But whilst any one of those might have been a handicap, the real reason is Australia’s helmet laws. Given that you basically can’t legally use the scheme in the way they are designed to be used, it is sort of not surprising that it, erm, wasn’t used. And if you think that’s hyperbole, consider that there are only three urban fixed-station bike share schemes in the world that are failing – Melbourne, Brisbane, and Vancouver. The link? They are the only three in jurisdictions where mandatory helmet laws apply. Go figure.

Bike share bikes did make it into the news last week in Sydney too, when prominent ex-politician Sam Dastyari turned up to a corruption inquiry on one. This is a man who lost his job as a Labor senator some time ago because he was linked with dodgy donations from a dodgier businessman. He was due at the corruption commission as a witness in a different case involving a different part of the Labor party taking large sums of money in cash from a dodgy businessman. (If you are not from Australia, that might seem remarkable, but it’s pretty much politics as usual down here). Well, anyway, Sam had the temerity to ride on the footpath for a short distance outside the ICAC HQ, leading to a stern talking to by the NSW Police – including being issued with a caution for riding on the footpath. Keeping us safe as usual. Still, at least he was wearing a helmet.

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