Category Archives: calendar

Open House in Brisbane 2016

Next weekend (8-9 October) is Open House, Brisbane, when a wide variety of buildings are thrown open to the public.


The idea began in England, where there has been an Open House London since 1992, but in the last few years the idea has spread more widely. Melbourne has been involved since 2008, and in all other capitals as well – Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth now have open days as well. Nothing yet in Darwin, by the look of it, and I haven’t checked out our regional cities.

The aim is to open up interesting buildings that are not normally accessible to the general public. Private institutions such as clubs and societies, government offices, commercial buildings that are old, or beautiful, or interesting – or all three – are open for us, the curious public, to have an annual snoop around.

I was lucky enough to be in London one year, quite accidentally, on its Open House weekend. With more preparation and more stamina, I might have seen more, but as it was, I spent a happy hour or so pottering around Marlborough House. The building is now the Commonwealth Secretariat, and usually closed to visitors.

Marlborough House was built as a town house for John and Sarah Churchill, first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and is just the sort of pied-à-terre you might expect from a couple whose idea of a country shack was Blenheim Palace. Marlborough House wallows in stucco ornamentation, gilded cornices and chandeliers. Sarah Churchill first hired Sir Christopher Wren – as you do – but sacked him, presumably for not being sufficiently over the top. John Churchill may have beaten Louis XIV’s armies on the field, but Louis got his own back architecturally. Along the rear of the building is a long gallery which was clearly influenced by Versailles’s gallerie des glaces.

This room is now the main conference room, and it is almost entirely filled with an enormous table, large enough so that every member of the British Commonwealth can sit down together in a round table discussion. Except that the table is not round, but an extended oval. The seating is arranged alphabetically around the circumference, from A to Z, starting at the middle of one long side. This arrangement means that M for Malta can happily chat across the narrow axis to A for Antigua or Z for Zambia, but G for Guyana might have difficulty communicating with S for Singapore along the long axis.

When I was there about 15 years ago, relations between Australia and Malaysia were still tetchy* after years of very personal antagonism between Prime Ministers Paul Keating of Australia and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, and visions of them glowering at each other across the table during heads of government meetings really made my day. So it was a bit of a disappointment to learn that Keating and Mahathir never met there, and the seating is laid out as it was at a much earlier Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1969.

As the role of the Commonwealth inevitably declines, no doubt eventually Marlborough House will be recycled once again. Goodness knows what they’ll do with that table. They will need to break it up to get it out the door, but I suppose that’s how they got it in there in the first place.

Meanwhile, Brisbane’s Open House day offers some interesting possibilities, though there will be fewer nymphs, and less stucco generally. Tattersall’s Club has a splendid Daphne Mayo frieze, the Masonic Memorial Temple has terrific black and white marble decorations, and the former Treasury Building, now the Treasury Heritage Hotel, includes a tour of the office of the Minister for Lands.

It should be a good weekend.

*They are again, thanks to the Hooray Henrys at the Formula 1 race the other day.

Apologies – this is an update of my post from 2013. Three years ago I was complaining that neither Sydney nor Hobart had Open House days – now they do 🙂
On the other hand, the Irish Club, which I urged people to visit 3 years ago, has since closed 😦

For another, architectural, perspective on the Open House phenomenon, this article by Susan Holden in The Conversation is worth reading.

Christmas in July?

Colonists in 19th century Australia always found it difficult celebrating Christmas at midsummer. The strangeness of coping with the Christmas festivities in hot weather is a common theme in their letters home.

Today, most Australians have adjusted. Christmas food is usually cold and relies on such seasonal specialties as prawns and mangos. But that leaves a gap that gets filled, often enough, with ‘Christmas in July’ celebrations – an excuse to turn on the oven, cook a turkey, and binge on mince pies and Christmas puddings. It is now a binge that has totally broken its links with either the Christian religious festival or the winter solstice festivals of pre-Christian Europe.

advert for Christmas in July

For the colonists, though, Christmas still had important religious significance, but it was also a way of keeping in touch with the rituals they had left behind, so they grimly celebrated the feast day, cooking and eating the heavy roasts and puddings they remembered from their British childhoods.

James Macarthur, watercolour on ivory, c.1820

James Macarthur, watercolour on ivory, c.1820

I was intrigued, then, to discover an early colonist thinking about moving Christmas to mid-winter as far back as 1827. James Macarthur, son of the more famous John, visited the Australian Agricultural Company’s headquarters at Port Stephens in December 1827. The place was still very primitive, with most people living in bark huts or tents, but understandably the new settlers made a big deal of Christmas Day. In his journal of the visit, James recorded:

We dined today on the Verandah where we kept up the good old customs of our ancestors, by being very merry & by eating plentifully of roast Beef & plum pudding – notwithstanding the difference in temperature between mid winter in England & mid summer in Australia a trifling variation of some sixty degrees of Fahrenheit….

A Corroboree of the Natives close to the Verandah finished the amusements of the day.

James had lived in England as a boy, but he was Australian born, so perhaps that is why he considered the possibility of moving Christmas to mid-winter:

I have always thought it would be a publick benefit (if practicable without heterodoxy) to change the eating and drinking part of this festival to a more temperate season of the year – At present too the Xmas holidays happen just at the Farmers’ busiest moment in the midst of harvest wool packing &c – Nothing can be more ill timed – In the month of June there is no operation of importance going forward & besides John Bull might then indulge as freely as at home without endangering his health.

I suspect that James was more concerned with getting greater profit from the workers than with endangering their health, but it is true that in the northern hemisphere, Christmas came at the slowest point of the agricultural year. In the southern hemisphere, there was more to do in December.

James was only musing to himself about the possibility of making the change – but farmers did once petition the South Australian government to change the Christmas holiday to April, so that their children could help bring in the harvest.

Reference: Journal kept by James Macarthur of a visit to Port Stephens, December 1827, in Australian Agricultural Company (London Office), General Despatches, 78/1/6, in Noel Butlin Archives, ANU.

Twelfth Night

Not that you’ve probably noticed, but tonight is Twelfth Night – the evening before the Feast of the Epiphany that marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Traditionally this was the day that the Three Kings (aka Three Wise Men) visited the baby Jesus.

Twelfth Night celebrations

Celebrating Twelfth Night in style. January, from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc du Berry, in Wikipedia

Here in Australia we have two ways of dealing with holidays. There are those that self-evidently must be celebrated on the date itself: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Anzac Day – and those that get shuffled off to extend the nearest weekend with an additional Monday: Labor Day, Queen’s Birthday. Good Friday and Easter meet both criteria, having the good grace (pun intended) to constitute a long weekend anyway.

Australia Day, on 26 January, has recently been upgraded from ‘nearest Monday when we can all veg out at the beach’ to ‘the day itself, and it’s about time you replaced those reindeer antlers on the car with Australian flags.’ But the traditional day for taking down the Christmas decorations was Twelfth Night. Continue reading

Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

In Australia, Halloween has recently become popular, at least amongst children – what’s not to like about an occasion that gives kids a socially sanctioned reason to be out at night, wear silly costumes and put pressure on their parents to eat lots of sugar?

The shops love it too. Most Australians, I think, are pretty cynical about this imported commercial event – yet another example of creeping Americanisation.  My favourite example of the way the marketeers have pushed it into our consciousness was the pumpkin I saw in Woolworths a couple of years ago, printed with dotted lines to show kids how to carve it.

Yet festivals morph and merge.  Before there was Halloween (31 October), there was Guy Fawkes Night (5 November). I remember bonfires and fireworks from my childhood, long, long ago.  I wonder if the rise of Halloween in Australia has occurred because nature abhors a vacuum? Continue reading

Governor and Lady Bowen: an odd couple in Queensland

Today is Queensland Day, an inoffensive but slightly daft non-holiday that was dreamed up in 1981, during the mad, bad days of the Bjelke-Petersen administration, with its separatist, anti-Canberra agenda.  It celebrates the splitting off of the northern part of New South Wales into a separate colony, Queensland in 1859.

It’s an odd date.  6 June was the day on which Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent, which are still held in Britain at the National Archives, but given communications at the time, nobody in the Australian colonies knew what Victoria was doing that day.  If we must celebrate the birth of Queensland – and do we really need to? – then surely 10 December makes more sense. This was the day that Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane, and the new colony was proclaimed. We usually celebrate birthdays, not the date of conception, after all.

Continue reading

Feast and Famine, and the Fast Diet

It seems as if half the population of the developed (and therefore obese) world is currently reading The Fast Diet, otherwise known as the 5:2 Diet, or Intermittent Fasting.  The author, Michael Mosley, is a BBC journalist with a medical degree, and his documentary and book (co-authored by Mimi Spencer) seem interesting.

The rules are simple: for 5 days of the week, eat as you normally do, but twice a week, limit your food to 500 calories (for women) or 600 (for men).  Someone I know tried it and found it worked.  She even fasted a few times during a holiday in France – how’s that for dedication?

As Mosley points out, many religions include periods of fasting.  During Yom Kipper, Lent, and Ramadan, the aim is similar in each case: to concentrate on spiritual rather than material things and – in extreme cases – to mortify the flesh.  All require self-discipline, but they use quite different strategies.

Continue reading

Fast Foods

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, the 40-day fasting period that leads up to Easter.

Fasting can take many forms.   Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan by abstaining from all food and drink during daylight hours; Christians fast by abstaining from particular foodstuffs – definitely meat, sometimes other animal products such as dairy products and eggs.  The rest of us may use Lent as the occasion for a detox of some sort, giving up wine or tobacco or chocolate.

There is a spiritual dimension to going without, but the Lenten fast was once also a grim reality in temperate Europe, coming at the end of winter when food stocks were exhausted and the first fruits of the new year were yet to ripen. Continue reading

Summer Christmas

On Christmas Day 1789, Governor Arthur Phillip and his guests at the governor’s table in Sydney ate roast turtle, ‘a very fine one’ brought by HMS Supply from Lord Howe Island.  The convicts managed on their reduced rations of salt pork, flour and ‘pease’ or dhal, though on Norfolk Island, two pigs were slaughtered and extra flour released from the stores to provide a Christmas feast.  There was also a lot of extra rum.

Phillip had served in the Portuguese navy, spending time in Brazil, so Christmas in the heat was no big deal for him.  But for the convicts, as for nearly all new arrivals to Australia during the subsequent 200 years, a summer Christmas was very strange, for Australia has been overwhelmingly populated by people from the Northern Hemisphere. Continue reading

Trick or Treat?

Tonight is Halloween.  The name means the Eve (= Evening = E’en) of All Hallows, otherwise All Saints’ Day, November 1, a day set aside to commemorate ‘all the saints’ that dates, probably, from the 8th century.  This festival (Toussaint in French) is immediately followed in the Christian calendar by All Souls’ Day, November 2, a day to commemorate all the dead – saints or sinners alike.

Halloween has a mixed history in Australia.  Every year, people will bemoan the Americanization of Australian popular culture, and it’s true, Halloween doesn’t seem very deeply embedded in our social life.

But nature abhors a vacuum.  We used to hold the party on Guy Fawkes Night, November 5.  In my youth, this was a great night for children, with fireworks, a bonfire, lots of kid-friendly food, terrified pets, and the exciting possibility of burns and explosions.

Fires are not a good idea in early November in most of Australia after a dry winter, and eventually state governments intervened to ban open fires.  The fireworks first moved to ‘Cracker Night’ in May, but the alternative festival never quite took off, perhaps because they chose 25 May, Empire Day, which was by then barely alive, let alone kicking, as a day of community celebration.  There was scarcely a murmur when the private use of fireworks was banned a few years later.

But I think there were also social reasons for the demise of Guy Fawkes Night and the rather reluctant reinstatement of Halloween.

Halloween is a much older festival, closely linked to All Saints and All Souls Days, and widely celebrated throughout Catholic Europe and South America, where these are the Days of the Dead.  In its original form, these were days set aside for Christians to pray for the release of their dead relatives from purgatory.  Protestants rejected the idea of purgatory, and of masses for the dead – and Halloween came under close scrutiny as a result.

Guy Fawkes Night, on the other hand, was the quintessential Protestant festival – and in its unreconstructed form, a very nasty sectarian affair it was.  It celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in 1605.  In England, Guy Fawkes Night was a state-sanctioned anti-Catholic revel.  In many places, such as Lewes in Sussex, the Pope is still burned in effigy, rather than the ‘Guy’.

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes, Sussex

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005

Guy Fawkes Night was an English custom, not followed in Scotland, where Halloween remained important.

Guy Fawkes Night didn’t translate very well to Australia.  In the 19th century, Australia’s population was about 2/3 Protestant, 1/3 Catholic.  Such a solid minority of Catholics meant that sectarian squabbles were much more troublesome, and authorities were keen to keep a lid on them.  Many of the Protestants, too, were Scots, Irish or German, for whom the concept was new.  Guy Fawkes Night – ‘Cracker Night’ in Catholic households – was a night for the kids, but it lacked the ferocity of the older English tradition.

There’s a further point.  In the Northern Hemisphere, both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night mark the beginning of winter.  Opinion is divided as to whether Halloween is a Christian version of the Celtic Samhain, but these festivals all share an emphasis on bonfires to keep the dark and cold at bay, whether literally or metaphorically.

At the beginning of winter, in pre-industrial societies, people expected to be cold and hungry during the winter months.  With harvest in, paid farm work dried up, so a traditional feature of these festivals is that they were ‘doling days’, days on which it was customary for the poor to beg for a ‘dole’ in food or money from their betters.  There are faint echoes of this tradition in the idea of a ‘trick or treat’. But once it was the young men who went around the big houses asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ – and men with burning torches in their hands can be very persuasive.

In Australia, October 31/November 5 marks the start of summer.  There’s no need to rage against the dying of the light.  In Catholic parts of the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina and Brazil, the Days of the Dead have kept their religious significance, despite the reversal of the seasons.  But here in Australia, neither Halloween nor Guy Fawkes Night ever had much purchase.  It’s just a bit of a game.  My local supermarket is selling pumpkins complete with carving instructions, which suggests the tradition isn’t very deep.

Mud-wrestling on St Crispin’s Day

This day is called the feast of Crispian.

Or, in other words, it is 25 October, the 594th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, without which virtually nobody would have heard of St Crispian.

Even Shakespeare seems to have been a bit hazy.  In Henry V’s speech, he refers to both ‘Crispin’ and ‘Crispian’, depending on where the word comes in the iambic pentameter, getting increasingly desperate towards the end, when

Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world…

In fact (and I use this term very loosely), they were two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian.  According to the Oxford Companion to the Year, they were martyred in c.285.  There is an English tradition that they worked in Faversham – Preston St., to be exact – which became a site of pilgrimage.  The French, on the other hand, believed that they were shoemakers in Soissons.  Either way, they are patron saints of leatherworkers – which led one church in Toronto, with a gay congregation, to reinstate them as patron saints of leather and people wearing leather.  It all sounds like a load of old cobblers to me.

In 1976, John Keegan published The Face of Battle, the book that made his reputation as a military historian.  He set out to describe the direct, personal experience of ordinary soldiers in battle across the centuries.  He used three case studies, Agincourt (25 October 1415), Waterloo (18 June 1815) and the battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916).

I won’t summarise his book.  It deserves to be read in full.  But I was struck by Keegan’s point that these 3 battles all took place so close together.  Agincourt (Fr. Azincourt) is in the Pas-de-Calais department of north-west France, with the Somme River running through it.  Waterloo is just across the present Belgian boundary, a few miles from Brussels.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this area marks a cultural boundary between a French speaking, wine drinking region, and a Germanic-speaking, beer-drinking region.  Its ports also hold the key to control of the English Channel.  So it is no wonder that this region was known as the cockpit of Europe, because of the number of battles that took place there.

Agincourt archers

Archers at Agincourt, from Chronicques d'Enguerrand de Monstrelet, in Wikimedia Commons

Apart from geography, what did these 3 battles have in common?  One common denominator was mud.  High rainfall was an inevitable characteristic of its strategic position close to the Channel.  Agincourt was fought on a recently ploughed field, where the heavy cavalry wallowed in mud.  Napoleon delayed the start of battle at Waterloo because he wanted the fields to dry out first.  And we have all seen the photographs of mud at the battle of the Somme.

Yet the timing of the battles was very different.  Agincourt took place on a single day, and the battle was won and lost by sunset.  The battle was crucial because 25 October was late in the fighting season.  The harvest was over, and soon it would be too cold for campaigning.

The timing of Waterloo, on the other hand, was determined by Napoleon’s escape from Elba, rather than by the rhythms of the seasons.  He escaped in March, made his way north to Fontainebleau, then to Paris, seizing the initiative from the reinstated Bourbon king, Louis XVIII.  But by mid June, his One Hundred Days were up.

The Battle of the Somme, by comparison, was a feat of terrible endurance for the men who fought there, lasting from mid summer until mid November.  In Henry V’s day, dates were reckoned according to the Julian calendar, a matter of 11 days difference from the Gregorian calendar.  [I’ve explained this here]

The date of withdrawal from the Somme, 18 November, is therefore only 11 days later than the date of Agincourt.  (25 October according to the Julian calendar, but 7 November according to the Gregorian)

Unlike Agincourt or Waterloo, the battle of the Somme ended as a stalemate, with no clear winner.  By then more than half a million men were dead – and the land was a quagmire of mud.

Note: Actually, today is 26 October.  Doing my tax, due by the end of October, had to take priority over blogging.  The calendar can be a tyrant.