Lighting up our lives

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Selfridges from the No.9 bus, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden

Strangely at this time of year I miss the big city lights and longest nights of a northern winter and ‘proper’ Christmas. Right now London is alight with street chandeliers, angels’ wings and glittering snowballs. Through a mist of nostalgia I’m recalling all my northern hemisphere Christmases: navigating the river of people spilling onto Oxford Street, wrapped up against needles of cold and willing on the arrival of the No 9 Routemaster bus to Hammersmith. Or, eating Christmas pud in the snow in Sloane Square; drinking whisky in front of a roaring fire in a hunting lodge in Inverness; or serving up a steaming roast around a table of Yuletide strays, waifs and orphans.

I only really miss living in London in December. If you’re not young and innocent the slipping away of another year is a time of reminiscence and reflection; a moment to let sad tears of the past mingle with the happy ones of now.

I worked in London’s Carnaby Street for the National Magazine Company when the Spice Girls turned on the Christmas lights around the corner in Oxford Street after their first single, ‘Wannabee’, had topped the charts. You couldn’t see Piccadilly Tube for screaming teenagers wanting to get a glimpse of their idols. At the time many were dismissive of their talents, being the first of a new wave of 90s girl bands who sang without instruments.

But, now, watching apparently the most watched viral video of 2016 (Adele’s Carpool Karaoke with James Corden) I’ve learnt that Adele was one of those girls in Regent Street the Spice Girls inspired. “It was a huge moment in my life,” Adele tells Corden in the front seat of the car as they sing along to her songs on the car stereo. “Girl power, five ordinary girls, who just did so well and got out. I was like ‘I just want to get out’. I didn’t know what I was getting out of – but I wanted to get out. It was a really important part of my life that.” And they drive on, in hilarious duet: to ‘Wannabe’. “Tell me what you want what you really really want…” Would you believe it’s the 20th anniversary of that song?

Oxford Street was closed to traffic this year when Craig David switched on the Christmas lights: 1800 snowball-like decorations lit up once again. The NSPCC, a charity partner, asked Londoners to donate £5 to dedicate one of the star-shaped lights to a loved one. Presents, lights, and loved ones…

The shopping instinct has hit here with so much choice to shop locally inspired by Tasmanian designers and makers. In her first year’s tenure at Design Tasmania in Launceston, Sydney’s Karina Clarke has observed “the sense of the handmade having a resurgence” in furniture, jewellery, textiles and ceramics. While navigating Design Tasmania’s 40th anniversary, 40 Years 40 Designers 1976-2016, Clarke (who’s also adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of NSW Faculty of Art and Design), is shepherding a new generation of young gun furniture makers in the UTAS Furniture Design Grad Show (running in Launceston until Feb 22, 2017).

I’m at a sunny Salamanca Market sizing up sun hats and thinking seedlings from Provenance Growers would make a good small present. But it’s just not Christmas. In Australia, to feel the true spirit of Christmas you’ve either got to be up before dawn, or wait til 10pm when it’s dark enough to see the lights. Christmas is a barbecue. It’s the summer solstice and the longest, languid days of the year when we need lights the least.

I’ve just had a call from a friend with bad news. I feel I must say a prayer although I don’t know exactly what a prayer is other than to contemplate the unspeakable tragedies of life that cannot be reasoned away; that rip into our souls, that make us change direction or stoically go on.

I will light a candle, turn on the fairy lights at midday and then invite the angels to carry away the pain of a year that cannot be undone. Because it’s Christmas, soon another New Year, and the light that twinkles in a child’s eye is precious.

First published in TasWeekend, December 17, 2016

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London Eye on South Bank, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
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London’s Oxford Circus from the top deck of the No.9 bus, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
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London’s Regent Street, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
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London’s Covent Garden, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden 
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Beware the angry gardener

Wild rose by the roadside

Gardeners aren’t usually the angry type. But I’ve met a few lately – in particular, a friend living high overlooking the Huon is concerned about the suburbanization of where she lives. Her anger is at odds with the peaceful nature of a dedicated plantswoman.

Another, who’s 80 something, is practising the burning of “bureaucratic bullshit” she encounters in her everyday life. She does so on bonfires and is seeking to broaden her cause, inviting the igniting of what she calls “bullshit bonfires” across the state.

Why do our elected representatives insist they are getting planning decisions right when instead they seem to enrage quiet women who nurture beauty? When gardeners get angry, government should listen.

Take the gutters in Bagdad. What’s behind this obsession with fitting urban street furniture into rural towns? What’s wrong with pulling over on the gravel strip when that’s the way it’s always been, and what puts the word country into countryside?

In the coastal villages of Orford, Bridport and Penguin, too, Tasmania’s holiday towns are being given the look of a commuter suburb.

In seaside Penguin, about 1300 people have signed a petition complaining to Central Coast council about new street furniture in the main street. There are dotted white lines, pavement markers, bollards, painted pedestrian islands made of concrete, yellow bumps in the road and median strips, all in the space of half a kilometre between the church at one end and library at the other.

The council says it’s to make it safer but how, you wonder, with so much distraction?  Sue Wood, who has lived on the coast for 30 years and at Penguin for six,  says: “Before the changes Penguin Main Road was pleasant and no one fought over parking.”

Driving through Penguin now, she says, makes you feel like you need to keep your elbows in. “The council has spoilt the seaside town. Now it looks like everywhere else.”

Plus, she and others think it’s more dangerous. There have been several near misses at the supermarket and many letters of complaint have been written to the council. Wood describes the replies she gets as “bureaucratic gobbledygook”.  And although the council has told her there will be changes, they haven’t happened yet.

Who has the vision for the amenity of our towns, with natural charm at heart rather than identikit development? Who talks about the poetry of the roadside, a wild dog rose wrapped around an old wire fence? The grader driver that scrapes and piles them up on the side of the road to be burnt has no eye for the superb fairy wren that nests within.

Two weeks ago the Heritage Council advertised the removal of 514 properties from the Tasmanian Heritage Register, which lists buildings deemed important to preserve by the state because of their historic value and ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations’. Anyone who has previously made a submission to appeal has the right to appeal again – in 30 days.

Tasmania’s natural and built cultural heritage seems under attack – a point made by Professor Michael Buxton at the recent town planning meeting in Hobart. Another public meeting is being held in Launceston on Tuesday, December 3. While Building and Construction Minister Guy Barnett said the proposed changes to the planning laws would “create certainty for developers” and “bring on more development and growth and jobs” that’s exactly what Prof Buxton warns against in Tasmania.

Tasmania, he says, is the last state to adopt statewide planning changes which favour the property industry.

“What’s been happening in Australia for the last 10 years has been one of the most sustained attacks on resident rights through changes to land use planning systems in this country’s history, and part of a national deregulated approach to favour developers,” Prof Buxton said.

“Tasmania’s heritage and amenity are its greatest strengths. Once that character is changed it’s gone forever.”

Concrete gutters on rural streets and street furniture in seaside towns are ugly symbols of centralised control by planning. Beware the angry gardener.

A public information night, Planning Matters, will be held on Tuesday, 7-9pm, at the Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston.

First published in TasWeekend, Dec 3, 2016