Archive for December, 2009


Loving the Emirates experience. They have the best entertainment! On the flight to Dubai, I watched two episodes of Frasier and one of Inspector Morse, listened to Poker Face, played Freecell and Hangman, and watched our progress in a beautiful 3D rendered model. Like Air Canada, the first international airline I flew, half of everything is in another language (this time Arabic), which is far less comprehensible to me than French, and a reminder that even if Worlds is conducted mostly in English, I’ll be quite out of my depth with the language barrier once I land in Istanbul.

The first impression of quality comes from Emirates’ gifts on the seat, for before I discovered the expansive entertainment options (called “ICE,” for Information, Communication, Entertainment), there was a blanket and pillow on my seat, besides large headphones and a remote control. Meals came with steel cutlery, even knives (funny, as I wouldn’t want to take one through security). The cabin crew are apparently fluent in nearly a dozen languages, from Arabic to Swahili.

I sat in an emergency row, so had extra leg room. The man next to me was grumpy from the moment our Chinese flight attendant asked him to put his shoes back on for takeoff, and to get off his iPhone. He did eventually, but grumbled to me about what danger was posed by his shoeless feet. By the end of the flight, after we’d begun the descent to Dubai, he wanted to use the lavatory and the flight attendant said no, so he went anyway, and when he got back, started a smug yelling match with her about not smiling enough, and promised to speak to the captain. “You didn’t smile once.” People who start these ludicrous fights should consider the awkwardness that follows when seated in an emergency row, directly facing the strapped-in flight attendant for the next ten minutes until the plane lands. Afterwards I was tempted to ask the flight attendant for a photo as everlasting proof that she did smile on the flight, but I didn’t.

Dubai International Airport was wonderful for the brief time I was there. My taxi driver from Wahroonga had told me Dubai was like another America, and he was right. The duty-free shops were all recognisable Western brands, and no line of Arabic was left uncaptioned in English.

The Emirates lounge offered free newspapers, one or two of which were in English, plus an Economist which I took. They also had free wireless, so I checked my e-mails and found Macquarie had deposited my travel grant straight into my bank account.

On the flight to Istanbul, I ate ravioli, listened to UK number ones from ’52 to ’09, and lost chess to the Emirates computer. Virgin and Emirates both market their entertainment as award-winning, but I doubt they’ve been in the same contests.

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Checking in

In the future, if there is any chance of leaving home later than originally planned, I’ll remember not to book a hotel room near Sydney Airport. I’ll still get limited sleep and I’ll still have to arrive uncomfortably early, but I’ll save the expense of a second cab, and that of the room in which I spent about three and a half hours.

On the plus side, I arrived at the terminal on time and survived a leg-numbingly slow check-in process. Late in the game I decided that it was worth withdrawing some euros in case of surprise expenses when I landed in Istanbul. This itself was a surprise expense – as Ashlea already advised me, Travelexes at airports are as cynical as Borders ceasing their coupon offers the week before Christmas. I checked the exchange rate before I left home – it’s just north of 62 cents (not a good start), but Travelex lowered it further to 54, before adding its own commission of $10. So my 100€ set me back $200. Remembering my $100 taxi ride to the Formule 1 hotel, and my additional hop over to the terminal, I realised I’d spent more than $300 without having yet left the country.

The check-in process was slow because the person indexing and assigning seats was plodding along. The lady checking me in seemed most disinterested in her job, but she was actually sweet. She took frequent sips from a coffee cup and I heard her telling the man at the next counter that she’d slept barely an hour and twenty minutes because of the heat. We waited for a fair while for my seat number, and during that time she asked where I was going and what for. She said my parents must be proud of me. Maybe if I post these notes I thought.

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The Bunny and the Crabb

Annabel Crabb was the guest speaker at last night’s Art After Hours celebrity talk, at the Art Gallery of NSW.  I am not a regular patron of the Art Gallery, and my knowledge of art is limited to everything I learned in 52 issues of Art Magic in 1998.  I learned about this celebrity talk from Annabel Crabb’s Twitter, which makes this the first time the site has been useful, not just interesting.  So yesterday morning I gave Angus a call, because I visit the gallery so rarely that I instinctively call the last person who visited it with me, and we arranged to meet up and attend the talk together.

My parents had asked me, when I told them about the event, what a political journalist would have to say about the art of Rupert Bunny – the subject of her speech, and of a current exhibition at the gallery.  I didn’t know.

Annabel cleared this up immediately, remarking that this was the third time she had been recruited to speak on the subject of art, and that each time previously, she had managed to plausibly relate the occasions to politics.  She expressed doubt – well-placed, as it turned out – in her capacity to pull off the trick again.

But her first political quip showed that she had judged her audience correctly.  A politician, she noted, had once described the parliamentary art collection as “avant-garde crap.”  An appreciative laugh rose from an audience who knew what was coming.  “Can you guess which one?” asked Annabel, and the audience’s response gave a definitive answer.

Yes, anyone who attended the evening hoping only for enlightenment on the exploits of that enigmatic expatriate, Rupert Bunny, would have been disappointed.  But all signs indicated that few members of the mostly senior audience had come with such expectations.  During a brief talk with Annabel afterwards, she was regularly approached with grateful, perhaps relieved feedback.  “You didn’t disappoint!” enthused one lady.

Annabel’s knowledge of Bunny, an Australian-born impressionist who spent most of his life in Paris, might be limited, but this inconvenience failed to diminish her sparkling talent for storytelling.  Astute observations of Australia’s self-conscious culture and particular expectations of its expats were weaved with thoughts drawn from Stephen Fry and anecdotes involving Germaine Greer and pointed advice on the optimal disposal of one’s placenta.  And of course, with apologetic mischief, recurrent attempts to return to the subject of Bunny quickly gave way to gleeful political commentary.

When Rupert Bunny did achieve a mention, the audience listened with attentive respect.  So did Annabel cheat them?

It would be a different matter if there had not been so much laughter throughout the rest of her remarks, especially at those jibes which rested on implicit punch lines.  My impression, from the back of the central court, was that we were all willing participants in her tangential digressions and irrelevances.  I fully suspect this is what most of us came hoping for.

Perhaps not everyone, of course – Annabel Crabb is popular, an unusual adjective for those in her field, but her recent move to the ABC has flushed out some feedback that her presence contributes little substance to the Australian political scene.  Take some of the comments from her recent article for The Drum comparing the upcoming Rudd-vs-Abbott showdown to a high school election.  “Too informal and familiar,” no “accurate analysis amongst all those metaphors and analogies,” she “writes as though for a gossip column,” and, from another reader, the ABC “wasted six figures.”  Like die-hard art fans of Rupert Bunny might have been disappointed at her limited analysis of his work, die-hard political junkies seem sometimes to be turned off by her attention to political personalities sometimes ahead of policy.  “Perhaps exploring policy issues might not be as whimsical, but at least you know what you’re getting when you place your vote,” wrote one of the readers quoted above.

Well, that’s partly true.  But in a representative democracy, we don’t elect policies, we elect people.  This is in contrast to a direct democracy, where all issues would theoretically be put to a popular vote (a referendum).  Analysis of policies and their consequences are crucial – after all, public opinion is still meant to hold these representatives to account – but there is much to be gained from a political journalist who delights in investigating what makes our elected individuals tick, and distilling her discoveries into stories we understand.  Politics, like art, is not only about policy and facts, but very much, and probably more, about people and society.

That said, Annabel’s final attempt to raise Rupert Bunny, like those before it, barely survived a sentence.  “My final point on Rupert Bunny,” she began, with conscious irony that brought yet more appreciative laughter, “is that he is not even the most famous expatriate Rupert.”  The Art Gallery of NSW central court promptly dissolved in hysterics, with some applause from those who could manage it, as Annabel digressed yet again, this time into a series of poignant observations about Murdoch’s influence in Australian and overseas politics.

Annabel has the comedian’s talent to deliver her comments with open amusement, not at her own cleverness but at the situation that led to such observation being possible.  It is a talent not to give amusement but to share it.

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