Summer in The City

Was it the rain last week? Perhaps those clouds that flitted past yesterday afternoon without the cleansing and refreshing benefit of a change to go with it? Or perhaps it’s those onshore winds that are driving the moisture off a swollen ocean into this city?

No matter! Today Sydney is back to sultry, overcast and H U M I D.

Chances are, for the next four months, it will be variations on a theme, interspersed with occasional sunshine, or a clearing cool change, along with attendant variations of rain, hail, storm and cyclone.

It’s one reason we decided that we would seek respite in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, settling on an ample garden and the cool breezes through tall eucalypts for our twilight years sometime hence. Later this week we’ll own our new home, away from the madding crowd. We look forward to warm evenings sitting out on the verandah (stoop, if you are South African) – enjoying the hum of evening insects, chanting birds and distant calls of cattle in the fields not far away.

It is of course holiday time for many. The streets of inner city Paddington were free from horns and hard-pressed commuters this morning. The insistent calls of Mynah (or sometimes Myna) birds are just a bit more intrusive than usual. Pests though they are, their calls give a semblance of present nature.

Children, as they amble along next to weary parents and grandparents, seem to tug reluctantly at the caring hands just a little more impatiently than usual. Elderly gentlemen complete with walking sticks and cream-coloured hats, with belts around their waistlines half-way-up their chests, pause for restorative breath rather more often than usual. And they glance up across the top of their tortoise shell glasses frames.

The sunglass-covered faces of the A-List would-be’s from the Eastern Suburbs have just a little bit less spring in their step or enthusiasm for that second skim-soy-latte coffee as they feel their discomfort in overly tight clothing, facing the inconvenience of actually parking their smart cars instead of double parking as is their wont, and, you know, like, actually walking!

When I was growing up in London, we’d have days like this. Instead of it being the 32°C it is today with 85% humidity it was a steamy 24 degrees. Oh the heat. Immediately London would be full of men who had rummaged through their wardrobes to produce generations old linen jackets, crumpled and shapeless, but light in colour and great breathable fabric, whatever the look.

It was enough to make exhausted office workers from stifling smoke-filled offices rush out to their local park – Hampstead Heath in my case, or Regent’s Park in later years, – both wonderful London parks, – and roll up their long grey trousers and fold their handkerchief into some quaint headgear with twisted corners, turning their prostrate bodies toward the searing heat of the sun. In less than their lunch hour a certain tell-tale reddish hue would adorn their faces. That was the life. But as they commuted home there was, in the sixties and seventies, an indefinable odour in the Underground. It gave life to a long-running ad campaign in Tube trains. A self-satisfied gentleman staring out from the advertisement on the wall of the train, in seeming contentment, while two pained faces looked in at him from either side, catching him unawares. “Someone isn’t using Amplex,” preached the message.

It was the first the Brits had heard of deodorants.

That was the era of council house bathroom techniques applied weekly, when the copper bath was taken out and set amidst the kitchen for the whole family to progressively have their weekly bath. Britain and bathing were not words once tended to use together. When I arrived in Australia some four decades ago the standard line was, “There’s nothing dryer than a Pom’s towel.” Of course such a claim would be regarded as racist and offensive today!

Margaret Thatcher put an end to that era as she sold off more than half a million council houses, all of which had to be upgraded for sale and brought to a minimal government-determined standard. Thirty-years-on the debate looms large again in London as council sell-offs continue. But rather than the tenants buying, it’s wealthy landowners and investors buying up and leasing back to an ever-more disenfranchised group of Londoners. Many of that Thatcher aspiring middle class will never be able to afford to live where their roots are in their community. Home ownership is not for lower or middle class people any more, it seems in Britain.

And so it is in the Cities of Australia. Housing affordability has reached the point that many of today’s ‘thirty-somethings’ won’t own their own home until their parents die and vacate the family home. Over 50,000 families currently await social housing at the start of the housing ladder. With interest rates mostly rising in coming years, chances are things will get worse before they get better.

With society moving in the next decade to develop strategies to combat climate change, the capital costs of individual homes will rise, as solar energy investments add between $16,000 and $20,000 to the capital cost of homebuilding, even though they will lower running costs. Air conditioning will take on new thresholds of affordability, as households progressively have to meet emission targets in the next couple of decades, an inevitable consequence of finally having to do something to combat ever-warmer temperatures.

So, as we ‘rug-up’ this coming winter in temperatures some 7° to 9°C cooler than Sydney, and snuggle under a couple of extra layers of blankets, it will be with some satisfaction that we know the following summer’s heat will be a so much more palatable than Sydney’s sweltering sidewalks, and humidity much lower to the point that air conditioning is all but unnecessary.

We’ll also rejoice in the fact that our Southern Highlands home cost us just half the price of the wonderful apartment we enjoyed in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Paddington. And as we tuck into the beats, broccoli and spinach of our autumn/winter crop of home-grown vegetables, we’ll also know that any waste is suitably composting away in the bottom corner of the garden, strengthened by the vigour of the adjacent worm farm. Country town living has a lot to commend it.

As you mop your brow from the sultry grey air of the metropolis tonight, steel yourselves for the hot muggy days ahead. If you are slugging it out in twenty-below temperatures of the US mid-west, comfort yourself that in just five months, on the Columbus Day holiday weekend, you’ll be able to go down to the edge of Lake Michigan, pop your toe in the water and know that your three months of summer is just around the corner. That’s if your house hasn’t been blown away by the ever-more-frequent tornadoes powering through from the storm-filled skies of Texas, Missouri and Illinois.

No matter where in the world you are, the weather always gives us something to complain about. But if you make the time to be present in what you have, life may not seem so bad. In fact being this side of the turf is indeed heaven on earth! Never was that more evident than today, as the world mourns the loss yesterday of 4-decade musician extraordinaire, David Bowie, who died of cancer after an 18-month battle.

As the inimitable words of the Steve Boon and John & Mark Sebastian song put it,”

“Hot town, summer in the cityBack of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity, Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.…” 

For some, the heat is gone, snuffed out. Yet conversely, the power of the heat  lives on, in music.

(The Storm that wasn’t – Video (Time-lapse on 11.January, 2016 in Sydney:)
https://vimeo.com/user16721090/review/151359443/1711380dc4

All Rights Reserved. © Copyright John Swainston, 2016,
excepting the words from Summer In The City, quoted above,
(© Carlin/SONY-ATV Music, 1966 – Loving Spoonful.)

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – How an Australian Public Company failed this week

The collapse into Administration and Receivership of Dick Smith Holdings Limited, and several associated entities on Tuesday 5th January, is a repeat of a story of failed retailers in Consumer Electronics around the world. We have heard it many times before. But as is the case in many corporate failures, the warning signs were there for anyone who cared to ask even basic questions, or read the public documents. They were there in the Prospectus. They were there in the Annual Report in August 2015. They were there in October and November, just a few weeks ago.

The November 2013 prospectus, underwritten by no lesser corporate luminaries than Goldman Sachs and Macquarie, detailed how the business, acquired from Woolworths for effectively $94M by Anchorage Capital Partners, was now worth $2.20 a share for a total market capitalisation of $520.3M.

Many are blaming Anchorage Capital. Private Equity makes its money by buying cheap, trimming hard, and selling at the top. In the case of Dick Smith, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Yes not pretty, but having re-read the prospectus, nothing really misleading there. Just very carefully worded! The promoters (Anchorage Capital and directors of the DS Holdings Ltd entity) duly identified multiple risks of consumer preference changes, supply chain, currency and much more, as any prospectus is obligated to do. By the letter of the Corporations law, their texts are faultless. Society will decide if it was morally transparent. The most accurate and prescient risk identified was this, found in Section 6.2.4 on Page 79 of the 160-page document from November 2013.

“If Dick Smith misjudges customer preferences or fails to convert market trends into appealing product offerings on a timely basis, these may result in lower revenue and margins and could adversely impact Dick Smith’s future financial performance. In addition, any change in customer preferences may lead to increased obsolete inventory risk.”

So the promoters clearly understood the issues, specifically stating at the start of that section 6.2.4: “Dick Smith’s revenues are almost entirely generated from consumer electronics related products…” The shareholders who bought, if they had read this and understood its weighted importance, might have thought twice.

But once the business was away, trading as a Publicly-held business, Anchorage became just shareholders. Big ones, mind you. That understanding led, as it now appears, to a clear decision once the August 2014 Annual Report was out. Confidence in the continued value of their shareholdings after the float had clearly waned. Those risks had become clearer from actual operational results. Remember the company was floated after just a few weeks actual trading under the new structure. All the forecasts were pro-forma. There was no history of actual comparable results offered.

Anchorage took until just September 16th 2014, (9.5 months since launch, 30 days after that first ‘Annual’ Report,) to unload their remaining 47 million shares at $2.23 a share, just $0.3 cents above float price. A debate as to whether promoters should be forced to hold shares longer is a separate matter. So, despite Statutory EBITDA (Earnings before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation) of $43.9M, the effective negative cash flow had been around $16M in just 7.5 months. Payables in that first year had increased $119M, or over 80%, as the company started to rebuild stocks. But much of that was on new extended trading terms.

Whispers started around the local industry-supplier corridors. In meetings with Dick Smith in which I was either directly or indirectly involved, (and a minor supplier at best) significant increases were demanded in both discounts and payment terms. That on top of Woolworths major intensification of pressure the prior year. In my own company’s case most of this was rejected, and promised orders didn’t come as a result. However other suppliers acceded. This was gradually reflected in public documents showing extended payment and improved GP. The die was cast.

These improved trading terms, it now appears, were then used, to significantly fund Private label stock. – funded by the very suppliers’ money with which this Dick Smith private label stock would now compete. As is often the case, higher GP rates for retailers seem instantly attractive. But it’s the appeal of the product to the consumer that counts. And it didn’t. Or not enough.

In the Annual Report for Fiscal 2015 stock holdings were reported at $293M as of June 30th. COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) were $993M. So, stock turns were down to just 3.38 turns. That’s a terrible figure for any retail business. But in Consumer Electronics it’s death. The annual accounts suggested to anyone who runs a retail or wholesale CE business that stock was some $70M to $90M in trouble at June balance date. That assumes stock turns of a modest 4.25 turns a year would have been acceptable. For most retailers I know in this game, 6+ is their goal. And it wasn’t just timing. But the Directors took until November 30th 2015 before they took a stock write-down of 20%, or some $60M.

By then more Dick Smith Private Label stock was on its way. And it would most likely have been paid for before it was shipped from Asia. This further impacted cash flow. Those payments to local suppliers were now becoming due, or overdue. Because sales were not there, payments to local suppliers were not all paid on time. So supplies started getting held back. More whispers. The right stuff was not in store any more. It became the death spiral of retail. Sales were falling short of plan.

The cash drain of $60M use of funds from investment costs, tax payments and dividends of 65% of earnings, plus the catch-up of now having to pay for goods deferred earlier through one-time trading terms advantages, forced a rapid draw-down on bank facilities. That drawdown rate appears to have been $75M in the year to June 2015, and a further $50M in just six months, from the figures available in the public domain.

By Christmas two weeks ago, it was clear sales promises from management had not been achieved. A week later on New Year’s Eve Management’s focus on growth and private label had failed. At this point non-bank creditors might be as high as $250M, up from the $230M at balance Date in June. With the banks refusing to add to their unsecured exposure, it was time for some phone calls by directors to accounting firms. The rise and fall of Dick Smith Holdings was at hand. It was over.

The equity at June 30 was reported to be $160M. Combining the $60M stock write-down and the effect of slower sales on reduced profitability, even earnings had flipped from $46M positive for a year to some $70M+ negative for six months. After writing down stock by $60M in November and failing to move anything like enough of the $230M of existing June 30th stock, they simply ran out of bandwidth, even while making a trading profit. As the old saying goes you can go broke very easily making a profit if you have negative cash flow. And that’s what happened.

The broader issue of dressing up the balance sheet for the float will no doubt be subject to legal investigation by ASIC and possibly other bodies. So I won’t add to the conjecture. The rest of the media has had a field day already in a feeding frenzy of wise-after-the-event scribes.

But the facts are these. Woolworths had failed to make a trade sale after 15 months of trying during 2011 and 2012. The Dick Smith division was eventually sold to private equity, after over $420M of impairment in Woolworths 2011-2012 accounts for just $15M. A later performance payment of a further $79M or so made that $94M. It stretches credulity that a turnaround of such a claimed fundamental nature had enhanced its value by a factor of 5 in just 15 months.

You, the reader, would know that the CE category has been subject to price decline throughout all this time of about 15% a year. So if inventory had grown, as it appears, by more than half in the first 14 months as a public entity, then annual impairments or reserves should have been set aside and recorded of at least $15-18M annually since the float. Nowhere do any of the accounts show that. Over three years there was therefore most likely $45M of unrecorded degradation of value that the November “non-cash” impairment appears not to have covered. This was a miss by management, and by the Board.

The Directors, only some of who had retail experience, started catching up. They acted appropriately in October and again in November and in calling in Administrators. But they believed their Management for too long. And now, as Receivers try to work out the full list of creditors and real liabilities, let alone the worth of the inventory and lease exposures and the like, it would be hard to see the business having any continuing viability. Their costs of doing business are some 450 basis points higher than JB HiFi, the industry leader. The business has none of the diversity of Harvey Norman, or its resilience from over $2 Billion in Property holdings, as well as a solid if as some perceive, old-fashioned management. But Harvey Norman is a management that has weathered multiple storms as well as some of its own major inopportune investments and come out remaining strong viable and most important, relevant.

It would seem there are few potential buyers; Dick Smith and their hapless 3,300 employees will most likely be gone. Some hard-working suppliers may be taken down by this, or at least massively weakened. Dick Smith will be added to the list of Australian CE brands now departed: Palings, Brashs, Clive Peeters, Clive Anthony’s, Digital City, Megamart, Wow Sight & Sound, – to name but a few. The long-anticipated arrival of Amazon, which has disrupted the European and US retail CE businesses, has yet to occur. It will only get tougher.

A $420 Million impairment charge for Woolworths in 2012, a $515M loss of equity to current shareholders, and an estimated $380M profit for Anchorage Capital, is the wash-up. It’s not pretty, but it’s the reality. Manage cash and your offer to the public, and everything else will fall into place as a retailer. Dick Smith managed neither well: Anchorage did – brilliantly, much as one hates to admit it.

 

This article was prepared exclusively for PhotoCounter, Australia, based on publicly available data from Investor documents published by Dick Smith Holdings, Anchorage Capital and Woolworths Ltd.

 © Copyright John Swainston, 2016. All rights reserved.

PARIS COP21: The start of a 150-year journey in Climate Change

 

(Click on image for Enlarged view)

45,000 Assemble in Sydney's Domain for People's Climate March, 2

(People’s Climate March, Sydney – 45,000 people united, November 29th, 2015.)

“A week is a long time in politics,” said former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in 1964. The 24-hour news cycle, a half-century later makes that seem like something from the very distant past. Sometimes, through frequent use, we lose perspective on just how long a time period has elapsed since something was embedded in our memories.

The first UN Climate Talks took place in Berlin in 1995 (COP1). The far-reaching Kyoto meeting occurred in 1997. That’s already 18 years ago. As I write, we are in the midst of the Paris (COP21) meetings. They have drawn 150 World leaders and some 40,000 global delegates and observers. The conference itself will generate some 300,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions from flights and movement of people. But, for the first time, a united USA and China commitment to a declared target has set the tone of hope and positive action.obama and Xi_voanews

(Picture: VOA News)

While there is sharp disagreement from developing countries, led by India, on who should pay for the clean-up and changed energy consumption, there are also funding declarations by the Innovation Group, led by Microsoft founder and philanthropists, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, to provide Billions of dollars of alternative microfinance for developing nations for them to bypass fossil fuel consumption and go straight to renewables in their quest for improved living conditions.

Sitting and Watching

I have been studying energy substitution, transport efficiency and building technology changes for thirty years, not as a scientist, but as an interested and concerned member of the public. I have read of the pioneering solutions-oriented work of global organisations like the Rocky Mountain Institute, under the leadership of the remarkable Amory Lovins.  Such organisations have made major contributions to energy efficiency and renewables substitution in transport and the built environment. I have seen organisations like WWF, the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace express their concerns and give increasingly alarmist warnings. New-generation pressure groups like GetUp and AVAAZ have harnessed the concerns of citizens and given them voice. I have looked on in horror as the power of some sections of the media and some seemingly perverse climate-change denialists have slowed adoption of essential policy incentives for emissions reduction by the most extreme polluters of diesel particulates, brown coal power stations, oil producers & processors, as well as cement producers.

The Challenges we face and why?

Peer-reviewed Climate scientists tell us that the world’s temperatures have risen by around 0.9 degrees Celsius at the latitudes of North America, Europe and China, in the past 100 years . At the poles it’s rather more. This has led to Arctic and Antarctic land ice loss and increased sea ice, raising ocean levels. In the same timeframe the world’s population has risen from just under 1.7 Billion people to 7.2 Billion today. That’s 4.2X the global population in 100 years. 80% of the world’s natural rain forests have disappeared since 1900 . The oceans have risen 8 inches (225mm) since 1900 .  The Canadian Sustainability activist Paul Chefurka believes there is a huge correlation between Population growth and Oil production. There appears to show high correlation.

World Population and Oil 1900

It is not only the use of oil, of course, but the close connection to Agribusiness. Agricultural productivity has seen world food grain output grow by a factor of four since the start of the 20th Century. It’s done this in part through mechanisation and land clearing. As land is cleared forest cover has declined. Since the 1960’s there has been a massive increase in oil derivatives and phosphates from natural and coal gas production used as fertiliser.

grain-production2

The human species has presided over a world consuming prehistoric trapped energy (fossil fuels) and increased its dominance over other species at an unprecedented rate. It’s a situation that is unsustainable, whichever way you look at it. Climate change is one result. Growing season and rainfall pattern changes have followed.

Loss of Species

The decimation of hundreds of animal and insect species per decade are another critical consequence of such man-made impacts. For all these reasons the November 27th – 29th weekend of People’s Climate Marches around the world ahead of the COP21 Paris meetings emphasise, if nothing else, the urgency for mankind to bring its own impact on our climate back under control. Over the next century the world has to arrest further growth in climate-changing emissions. And then it has the much more painful task to bring them down further, so the atmosphere can get back in balance. We now have an atmosphere of 403 parts per million CO2 (0.04%), higher than in the last 800,000 years. It will take 100 years of effectively zero emissions to start to lower that back down again. CO2 has an approximately 100-year atmospheric life, unlike the other big greenhouse gas Methane, which lasts 8-10 years in the atmosphere.

And to those who claim that a gas that has increased concentration from 3.5 parts per million (ppm) to 4.03ppm concentration in the atmosphere cannot surely affect our climate so profoundly, they fail to note that tiny traces of other elements can massively alter their contribution from benign to fatal in other similar levels or concentrations. As examples, moving from one part per million units of liquid in the case of arsenic moves it from survivable to fatal if you go to three parts per million. 3 parts of blue ink per million in water will change its colour from transparent to blue. Ozone is a serious health hazard at just 0.1% of the atmosphere. Scientists advise a safe maximum of 0.05%.

Ozone is a particularly relevant gas. In this case, having identified fluorocarbon gases in the 1970’s as contributing to depletion of the safety benefits of ozone (-It protects from excess UV rays reaching the earth,) in the upper atmosphere, the world united and banned them. The ozone layer is slowly repairing itself some 25 years after these refrigerant gases were banned. It can be done. Substitutes were found and the world did not end; our lifestyle did not suddenly change for the worse. At the time car and refrigerant manufacturers warned of dire adverse effects and unaffordability. In real terms both cars and refrigerators and air conditioners cost less today than pre-ozone refrigerant days. That’s the result of crisis and inventiveness colliding.

Consequences of unlimited growth

Throughout history, mankind has used what it has learned from empirical observation and scientific analysis to adjust its own progress and advancement. The past two centuries have seen a period of profligate consumption of what appeared to be endless natural resources to advance the human cause. At the same time that level of consumption has seen waste accumulate at a breathtaking rate. Analysis of all the oceans, but especially the Pacific Ocean, shows large amounts of micro-plastic debris both at the surface and through most depths of the ocean. The oceans, the repository for the majority of the atmospheric excess CO2 now are suffering from the added weight of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste that kill marine life and plankton of various sizes, – the foundation of the marine food chain and 2% of human food supplies. Another dimension of unsustainable growth and “convenience with consequences.”

With more people than the earth’s ecosystem can sustain, with an atmosphere that is fast getting to a tipping point where uncontrolled temperature rise may break out and in which oceans may logarithmically accelerate their rise from higher temperatures (more volume) as well as from melting icecaps and glaciers, it is clear something drastic has to happen. Even with every nation signing up and delivering on their COP21 promises for mitigation, the earth’s temperature is still likely to rise by another 1.5°C in the next 50 years before temperature rise can be expected to stabilise.

3-sea-level-rise_CSIRO

Hundreds of millions of people will, within 50 years, be displaced from living in low-lying cities close to oceans, just as are the peoples of Kiribati and even Miami today. In Bangladesh both the rise of the ocean and changes to the Monsoon have seen over 60 million people experience water invading their streets and homes in many of the recent most extreme weather events in the region, leading to mass migration. That impact will spread over time to much more temperate areas, like New York, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Tokyo, Shanghai and Sydney, as well as more than 40 small island nations around the world. Drought in Africa, resulting from deforestation in West Africa is already causing mass refugee movements, just as four years of unprecedented drought has in the Middle East, especially Syria.

It is unlikely we will reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid some or all of these adverse impacts. but it is vital that we do our best to mitigate the very worst possible outcomes. If, by 2050 to 2060 we manage to arrive at a zero emissions level, and that’s a huge if, then from that point forward the earth can start to repair itself. But that repair process will take at least 100 years from that point forward. That’s at least 150 years from today or six generations of humanity. That’s 37 US Presidential election cycles away. Which politician in this world would take that as a priority over the next mid-term or general election due in the next two years. Clearly not many! So it is up to the people to not only demand it, but force through both technological and political change.

203_co2-graph-080315_NASA

So what’s to do?

The current UN-led talks in Paris are certainly more positive than those in 2009 in Copenhagen. But…

China continues to grow its emissions; it’s a country whose cities are so polluted already that air pollution levels in Beijing are so severe that citizens are being advised to stay in-doors again this week, not for the first time, but this time for five days in a row. Chinese leader Xi Jinping warns that China’s emissions will likely not peak until 2030. India seeks to open new coal power stations to bring 300 million citizens out of abject poverty and will more than double their emissions over the next 15 years. Their emissions per head, however, even with that scenario, will still be less than half those of Australia after its 26% reduction effort by 2030.

The reality is that the rest of the world will have to actually have negative emissions by 2050 to produce the required reductions back to a level of 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, a level that Scientists agree has proved sustainable since records have been traced back. Politicians say a 100% renewables route would be painfully expensive. Australia’s Prime Minster calls a 45% reduction level ‘heroic.’ Even that is therefore unaffordable in his eyes. Nonetheless the fall in costs of solar and wind and the start of the downward price experience-curve in battery energy storage, in combination with ever more efficient house-building, appliance device manufacture and recycling, plug-in and hydrogen powered mass transport, – is not only possible, but it is affordable and achievable. Affordable has many meanings. If by saying it is unaffordable to change you are also saying that you will condemn the human species to eventual extinction, along with many other species. The affordable solution is one where we start acting sustainably and inventively, and we survive, perhaps with a few less billion humans and other creatures too can continue.

History tells us that in crisis mankind’s inventiveness intensity can increase in almost logarithmic ways. From the biplane of 1939 to the V2 rocket of 1945, military flying weaponry evolution took only six years. That 1945 state of the art has stayed pretty much constant since, in the absence of crisis, subject to refinement but no major breakthroughs, except in efficiency.

Investment Redistribution and Inventive Solutions

If the vested interest groups that produce 80% of the world’s oil output redirected just a tiny part of their drilling research into renewables instead, things could change rapidly. Increasing funding for universities like the University of NSW, which has demonstrated solar panel efficiency in the lab of over 30% could accelerate commercialisation. The ANU in Canberra has a completely different Sliver technology that shows promise. These lab examples compare to today’s more typical 18% efficient mass-produced panels. Accelerated investment and resources will make them financially competitive or even beat today’s oil based energy. In some regions we are already past that breakeven level of affordability.

In an interesting announcement by Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, in Paris, she announced that the City of Sydney identified 70 major buildings some five years ago as contributing over 50% of the emissions of the urban built cityscape. Half of those buildings have now been retrofitted with new heating, cooling, and lighting technology. The offices also have new IT devices, consuming a fraction of the earlier devices, such as CRT displays and desktop computers. The exciting result has achieved 45-55% energy reduction in just 5 years. And that with present technology! It’s daily breakthroughs like this that are happening now. In Australia we are still subsidising hydrocarbon energy to the tune of A$4B a year. But we provide less than one fifth of that to new replacement and sustainable alternatives. Globally the subsidy to hydrocarbon energy is over $400B. No pun intended but it does not stack up!

We know what is needed to begin to rein in excess temperature rise. It is now a case of will. It’s a case of constant pressure on weak politicians who continue to pander to big energy and old thinking. 150,000 people of every faith, all walks of life and every age group expressed their concern, passion and hope for a better future by marching in some 70 venues over one weekend in November 2015 across Australia.  That was multiplied many hundreds of times over around the world in similar People’s Climate March events.

The worst of the adverse consequences of a weak response to climate change can be prevented, through accelerated action, innovation and a greater respect for sustainability by all. And our great grandchildren can look forward to the end of the beginning of correction, an era that started in a little publicised UN meeting in Berlin in 1995 with a few scientists showing concern.

All text Copyright John Swainston, 2015. All rights reserved.

/ends.

 

How we come to have music in our lives

Music. Ah, Music!

Another wonderful art form and very different from the photography I write about in these columns from time to time. Or is it different?

I was provoked to recall my own life journey in music by an article in yesterday’s The Australian newspaper, written by Matthew Westwood, entitled ‘Schooling that sings’. The article was stimulated by conductor and educator Richard Gill’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture, delivered on Monday night in Sydney. It is to be repeated this coming Friday 30th November, at the Deakin Edge Theatre, Melbourne. My home in Paddington, Sydney backs on to the former home of Australian composer and critic Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), now a residence for musicians and composers. In Summer the air is filled with the sound of voices practising or instruments being exercised. Music really is in the air.

pgh_sign

What is it about music that is so fundamental to our being? From the earliest moments of life outside the womb, mothers in every culture sing to their newborn children. They rock the new little person with a slow rhythm, while gently humming or singing in subdued tones. It’s comfort. Often the cycle of movement is half the pulse rate or around 32 – 35 cycles a minute. Little mechanical (or these days battery-powered) chimes may hang above a baby’s cot, designed to mesmerise them into calming sleep. Lullabies are found in every language and culture. Music is one of our earliest human experiences, even before speech.

In thinking about how important music has been to me in life, I quickly tracked back as I read the piece in The Australian. Pre-school in 1956 had dance and movement, played on the upright piano in Northern Heights school in London, by Miss Hackforth, I think it was. Boys and girls forced to coordinate arms and legs in time. Then we’d be assembled into a semi-circle and taught to sing along with a nursery rhyme already learned from our mothers before our schooling had even started. The Christmas pageant could be relied on to bring out our best (or worst) as we dutifully showed off our new collaborative performance skills. I do recall our triangle concert efforts were not so successful.

At the same time I was being programmed unconsciously to the sounds of my father’s ‘gramophone’. It’s what music streaming once was, only it was played from a vinyl LP! He had been the sales manager for HMV records in the nineteen-thirties. He had wined and dined all the greats of the era; the young conductor Malcolm Sargent, composer Rachmaninov and singer Chaliapin, to name just three. Booming out of my Dad’s dressing room from early waking minutes, before he drove down to the City, would be Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Wagner. No wonder my mother had confined him to his own room after 20 years of marriage. It really was very loud! I could hear it very clearly from down the hall.

Our visits to Hampstead Parish Church give me my first recollection of performance. The choir was directed by Martindale Sidwell, a musician of enormous influence for some 30 years, who combined being organist and choir master with a similar role at St. Clement Danes. Later he would form his own larger choir, performing all over London, the Martindale Sidwell Singers. At Christmas we would have the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, exposing me to soloists and harmony, and the different voices – the baritone lead in Three Kings and the angelic silence breaking of the processional treble solo from Once in Royal. I clearly remember the special glow that followed those packed events. Music was something special.

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(The interior of St. John’s Church, Hampstead, London.)

My boarding school years enabled me to learn the power of the collective voice. I joined the choir at 9. As juniors our first year had us in cassocks, but no surplices. When I graduated up about five inches in height after my first year, I was allowed to use a surplice. That’s the white cover to the black cassock used by most Anglican choirs. Unless one is in a Cathedral choir where purple is the colour of the cassock. As I progressed through the ranks I tackled anthems by Dyson, Jeremiah Clark, CV Stanford and Vaughan Williams. When I was 12 in my final term at prep school I was terrified when my name was read out and I was to sing the processional Once in Royal opening to our end of year Carol Concert. But apart from nerves, all went well. The diligence and care to tutor us and to develop our love of Music was the task of a polio-striken teacher, privately wealthy, David Rowe. He would bring groups of about ten across the courtyard to his on-site residence to listen and critique a variety of music. He had a Quad amplification and loudspeaker system, along with Garrard 301 turntable and SME arm. I learned that these were the best of the best in a new word to me, Hi-Fi. This was the best possible sound reproduction. He was the first person to have stereo (two speakers/split channels.) We were IN the concert hall in his house. Here I learned of solo piano, Schubert, Brahms and many others.

When I went to High School, at Winchester College, music was just as deeply part of day-to-day life. Music appreciation exposed me to works I’d not heard at home. Britten’s Peter Grimes, as well as the musical form of the String Quartet were all new to me. Our teacher, baritone Julian Smith, exposed us to depth, tonality, programmatic music and so much more. As a national performer he could immediately illustrate, as they say today, in real time. Then we simply said, there and then! Meanwhile, with a raucous and non-stop insistence, our hall gramophone bleared out Frank Ifield, Jet Harris, The Shadows and an emerging new band from Liverpool, with the song “From Me to You” – The Beatles!

The annual house singing contest, the Bobber Cup I think it was (?) had our house master cajole teenage newly-broken voices into a semblance of unison. We tackled Schubert’s Ich Grolle Nicht as our serious piece, and did an arrangement of Lazy Bones from the 1930’s, written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. We certainly didn’t win. But it was such fun trying. I remember so clearly the advice and encouragement of legendary cellist and head music teacher, Christopher Cowan:  “If you don’t want your voice to fall flat on a long sustained note, just think sharp.” He was so right. I must have passed that advice to dozens of people over the years.

Our boarding residence or House, was across the road from Music School. The air was full of practising students, – horns, cellos, violins, pianos and voices. I joined the school men’s choir and over three years performed in Bach’s St. John Passion, the Mass in B Minor and  Vivaldi’s Gloria. There were concerts from visiting dignitaries in the town. Soprano Galina Vishnefskaya and Tenor Peter Peers and the Bournemouth Symphony gave us Benjamin Britten’s newly released War Requiem. That introduced me to the war poets and especially Wilfred Owen. 1964 was the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. The War Requiem made a huge impression. Later I used the closing Let us Sleep movement in a production of Everyman that the school produced. By then I had become the sound man at school and had assembled recording equipment to transfer and record performances. In the school holidays my father took me to hear a prom Concert at the Royal Albert Hall where they played all six Brandenburg concertos. (In those days the echo was so bad you got two concerts for the price of one.) Despite the fifty year age gap, in music we were brothers. I returned to the Albert Hall 18 months ago to hear Mahler’s great Resurrection Symphony (No. 2) in the last but one Prom concert of 2014. The illuminated blue discs, installed in the late seventies, converted the Albert Hall into a wonderful acoustic, and perfect for the extraordinary summer music festival that in 2016 will be celebrating its 122nd season, if I have calculated correctly.

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I was a disc jockey in my University days, and an amateur recording engineer. I managed to produce a demo recording of Hey Jude by a new group called the Unauthorised Version, a Group of Magdalen College choral singers of sufficient quality to get them a recording contract. When re-recorded by CBS, it made no 17 in the UK hit parade in 1970. I also made special efforts to go round to the rooms of visiting Australian post-grad student, Roger Smalley to make a concert recording for University radio York. Smalley died recently in Perth having contributed greatly to music over 5 decades. Later I recorded the St. John Passion in St. John’s Smith Square with Richard Hickox as conductor and choral director and Robert Tear as tenor soloist. The resultant recording was submitted to the BBC. For Richard Hickox it gave him his first major recording contract. We had met through his work as choirmaster at my local church, St. Margaret’s, Westminster. On reflection perhaps I should have been a music recording engineer, so much of my early life was music. But again, as I was hopeless at playing an instrument and could only sing reasonably and read music moderately, it wasn’t a serious option.

By the time I was 25 I had witnessed performances conducted by Klemperer, Sargent, Boult, Mackerras, Groves, Downes, Haitink, Davis, Previn, and many other European maestros. I saw Rostropovich play cello, Menuhin play violin and Ashkenazy delight us with Rachmaninov. I lived in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank most weeks through the season. I was even at the recording session of the 3rd Symphony by the last directly connected Mahler student conductor, Yascha Horenstein. I worked in a wonderful record shop with his nephew, Mischa. I will never forget the electricity of that day in Croydon Town Hall, the venue for the Unicorn recording. John Georgiadis, then leader of the LSO, broke his bow string in the final bars; the second player in the violin desk threw his bow at Georgiadis and the recording went through to the end. Such is the passion of emotion and professionalism of inspiring performers. The show must go on, regardless. When I saw in the closing credits that Georgiadis had featured in the boutique 2012 Dustin Hoffman directed movie, Quartet about retired performers, my mind raced back to his glory days as a 40-something musical giant. Such is the travel of life.

As my own children grew up music was again pervasive in their lives. We visited the Sydney Opera House. I even saw my eldest daughter perform dance there in a young people’s performing arts festival, dressed as a punk Boy George. And if some of the other spectacles were harder to take and enjoy, I only had to look to the ceiling of Utson’s great building to seek visual stimulus.

DSCN1007 sydophse int roof_mono_blog(Roof of interior of The Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. )

The children put on concerts in our house, and combined them with dress-up events. Neighbours and their children were involved. Both performed as singers in their teens, my eldest as a soloist in Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, no less. Later after being joint-musical director for a University performance of the musical, Guys and Dolls, which she also choreographed, she became a consummate performer of Edith Piaf songs, some of which I video recorded before she ceased singing regularly. So highly treasured. My youngest has been a part-time concert/artist promoter for six years, bringing over 200 artists together with a musician friend to over 10,000 audience members. We have also sat together in Sydney’s superb Opera House and watched the finals of the ABC Young Performer’s awards. She gripped my hand as I sobbed my way through a rising young star’s breathtaking performance of Mahler’s Der Kindertotenlieder (Songs for a departed child).sydoperahouse_normalfield_jds_8517 2_blog

(Detail of the archway at the ground entrance of the Sydney Opera House)

Our lives have been enriched profoundly by music. But it’s been through passion, enthusiasm, encouragement, and stretching our comfort zones to learn. If a record dealer, David Foulger, had not goaded me into going to a concert to hear Messian’s Turangalila Symphony in 1969, I would never have discovered the French composer’s enormous range of organ works which are perhaps the finest examples of their type from the 20th Century. And now, in later years, possibly I would not find so much solace in the magic of John Rutter’s choral masterpieces, or the eternally uplifting tones of Miles Davis’ rendition and arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime.

“If Music be the food of love, Play On,” said Shakespeare.

Let no student go without the life-enriching learning of performance and listening to music of all types. Richard Gill’s initiative so needs to be supported broadly in all Australian communities. This journey will make for a unifying link for our multi-cultural nation that can unite us like nothing else. Because it speaks from our souls and disperses our differences, in harmony. And, as it turns out, it’s a universal language that speaks to us like the great photograph.

All images and text are Copyright John Swainston, 2015. All rights reserved.

Aylan Kurdi joins Kim Phuc in changing the world: Warning – Confronting Images.

In the last thirty-six hours, news services, blogs, social media and websites around the globe have posted an Associated Press picture of a little 3-year old Syrian child, later identified as Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. It was an anonymous tribute in the Obituary pages of today’s The Sydney Morning Herald that shocked me to the core as I sipped my first coffee at 6.30am.

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Aylan’s father, Abdullah, spoke in Turkey of the unimaginable loss of little Aylan and his elder brother Galip and his efforts to save them. They had fled Syria and paid a People Trafficker over A$2,800 to attempt the journey into the EU in Greece. Such a desperate plight, which also resulted in the horrific death of his wife, Rehana, is beyond understanding.aylan-kurdi-AP picture

Picture © Copyright AP.

I have friends on social media who have stated their distress for being confronted with the image on Facebook when they logged on on Thursday morning. I understand it can not be to anyone’s liking. I agree: That’s not what Facebook set out to provide as a service. It is however part of a world in which we humans, alone of the animal species, express considered thoughts, emotions and communicate across national and international boundaries, in different languages. It’s a world where the desperation of tens of thousands is so extreme they will risk everything. For a remote chance at life.

The losses in the Mediterranean this year have been appalling. Boat after boat through the summer months has been upturned, sprung leaks, sunk. Hundreds have been lost in single events.

When I see the picture posted and this one below, of the two little brothers, I see, (and I think most parents see), a collage of our own children’s faces within these images. If you have not had the joy of your own children, you will see the faces of nephews and nieces, of your neighbours’ little ones. The memorial pictures of these children are, but for the Grace of God, whoever or whatever such a power may or may not be, the pictures of those near and dear. It’s extremely personal and very confronting. Because it tests our resolve and forces us to confront our own values and behaviours. Our shock gives way to the realisation that our own actions and inactions on war, on civil disobedience, in public and private life, in attitudes to climate change, to big-business, to the homeless man or woman we carefully move past on the sidewalk,  – all are who we are, and such actions are the definition of our humanity or lack of it.

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Three other ‘history-changing’ images were part of my youth. And they all have a personal connection. Each image changed the course of political direction, two probably influenced the end to the war in Vietnam.

As a fourteen year-old at English boarding school, I was an avid reader of newspapers. (I still am, what’s left of them!) In early Summer of 1963 I had been reading of growing rumours of alleged misdeeds by British Defence Minister John Profumo. Once the scandal broke a hapless lady of the night, one Christine Keeler, was hounded by the media to tell of her association with the Minister. But it was the sensitive studio-based picture by the late Lewis Morley, society photographer to the raving 1960’s, who caught the ordinariness of a young woman trying to earn a living, caught up in the Cold War. This image hung like a noose around Morley for the rest of his days – it defined him in the eyes of most commentators. Morley’s image resulted weeks later in forcing Prime Minister Harold MacMillan from office. A year later Labour scraped into power and Britain sank from Empire under the grey hand of Harold Wilson.

Today the Morley image has become a collectable piece of fine art. For twenty years I grew to know Morley, who retreated for a new life in Australia in the 1970’s, exactly a decade before I did the same with my family. Lewis maintained to the end that the power of that image was its innocence, something he insisted on, clearing his studio of all hangers on, so the poor girl could comply with the magazine contract, which stipulated she be photographed without clothes. Morley’s picture revealed nothing, through sensitivity and quick thinking. But for English society, the picture of a seated naked alleged prostitute shook and shocked English society as never before.

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© Lewis Morley, 1963.

Eddie Adams, American war photographer, was the witness to General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the South Vietnamese police chief, shooting a VietCong Soldier, Nguyễn Văn Lém. The head-on image of the gun in the police chief’s right hand, a millisecond before it was fired, shocked the world, when it first appeared in the New York Times, and later Time Magazine. That February 1968 image, taken at the start of The Tet Offensive, was also the picture that, for most, defined Adams. But he often stated it was not his most important or best picture.

RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE--FILE--South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998 at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner's head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

“Nguyen” by Eddie Adams – © 1968 Wide World Photos. Copy found at BBC News. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nguyen.jpg#/media/File:Nguyen.jpg

I met Adams once, walking quietly through a Photo Marketing Convention show, arriving on the Nikon stand in either Las Vegas or New Orleans in 1998, some six years before he died. His distinctive pony tale helped me recognise him immediately. I knew of him and this picture; and I had read about his comments. In trying to strike up a conversation I asked him how he had been selected to become a combat photographer in Korea all those years ago, asking if he had used a Leica or one of the new Nikons. (He eventually did get a Nikon.) In his very direct way he simply recalled that being a photographer helped him avoid using weapons himself, but enabled him to fight for causes he believed in that supported America. He was always blunt. On the death of General Nguyễn years later he was to tell a television audience that “he was a Goddam hero” and that Nguyễn had fought for a just cause.

Adams believed his most important work was a photo essay on Vietnamese refugees who made it to Thailand, only to be towed out to sea again by Thai Authorities. Such a story is challengingly familiar to Australian readers. He used those images to argue a strong case for compassion. His award-winning work is believed to have influenced President Carter to allow some 200,000 Vietnamese refugees to go the USA. Other Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, are now  a vital part of our own Australian community – hard working, hard studying, high achievers, valued members of today’s Australian community.

The last picture that shocked is Nic Ut’s 1972 picture of the Napalm Girl, or as it is better known, the ‘Girl in the Picture.’ That girl was Kim Phuc. She was recorded running down a Vietnamese road, having been badly burned by American bombers dropping Napalm. That picture ultimately forced Nixon to abandon the war. Because it changed Americans’ attitudes fully against the war. I was on my first visit to the US when this picture featured in American media. Everyone talked about it, whether they were for or against the war. It shocked as much as the picture by Bob Jackson of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby had shocked Americans a decade earlier.

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Image: © Nic Ut, 1972. Agency: Associated Press (AP).

In 1995, Kim Phuc, by then the mother of a small child, Thomas, featured in a photograph that was a cornerstone picture of a book called Family, in an amazing New Zealand photography project unusually entitled Milk.  The picture, created by photographer Anne Bayin in Canada, Phuc’s home today, defines new life while reminding us of her own terrible deforming injuries. In 2004 Kim Phuc came to Australia to open a show of the pictures from the Milk project, which Nikon sponsored, on the forecourt of The Sydney Opera House. The grace and peacefulness of her words over a very special private dinner, with just six present, is possibly the most life-changing event of my life. She recounted her years of struggle. But she exuded a message of peace and forgiveness. I realised that out of the most appalling calamity, sometimes good can result, even if not directly.

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© Anne Bayin, 1995, Kim Phuc and son Thomas.

The picture of  little Aylan’s lifeless body on a distant shore this week surely must change even the most hard-hearted of minds. It MUST! If we are in any way beings of compassion and decency we will realise that anything is better than forcing desperate people to pay traffickers for the chance to escape, risking everything.

My life in photography has been filled with chance encounters and enormously heart-warming moments. The little lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi is a picture that must stir those of us who are so fortunate and give others the possibility of HOPE!

 

All words in this article are © Copyright John Swainston, 2015.

The pictures are subject to the copyright protection of their owners, their agencies and those attributed above. They are re-published here in the hope that showing them will influence change for good.

Sections of this article have been assisted by information checked in Wikipedia.

 

Why is Political Leadership in Australia so absent on The Environment?

Wednesday  September 1st, 2015 – Sydney
Last night I attended the Sydney launch of an important new book by former Australian of The Year, Tim Flannery.

flannery-atmospher-of-hope-petersham_JDS2072-fbThe book is called Atmosphere of Hope. You can buy it online or in your local bookstore. As a photographer who always carries a camera, I recorded some moments of Flannery’s speech at Petersham Town Hall, as he gave us some insight to the broader possibilities for CO2 mitigation and made a picture of the full-house gathering of 170 faithful, noting the extensive line of people waiting for Flannery to sign their own precious copy just purchased.Author Tim Flannery signs Atmospher of Hope for Berkelouw Peters

Continue reading Why is Political Leadership in Australia so absent on The Environment?

The man who is tired of London… Johnson and Wren

After enjoyable and informative visits to St. Martin-In-The-Fields, St. Mary le Strand and St. Clement Danes, it was time to head off. After all – St. Paul’s Cathedral had been my goal. In 1975, forty years ago, I attended a wedding in the crypt below. It was a wonderful couple – a then-popular actress and her dashing actor husband. Her parents were neighbours in our flat, just off Baker Street. The marriage did not end well, so no names. As I head off, inspired by the restored St. Clement Danes, it is with these memories of four decades earlier and that wedding celebration to egg me on. And it’s the excitement I’m feeling from rediscovering the city of my birth and youth.

Continue reading The man who is tired of London… Johnson and Wren

How pleasant to know Sir Christopher Wren!

Walking where one’s eyes takes one can lead to wonderful discovery. Two days on my recent visit to England, led me to scratch the surface of some London history. That history charts a direct path to the London of today.  I encountered the important architectural work of James Gibbs, the abode of Dr. Samuel Johnson and the legacy of Christopher Wren: A man of letters who gave us the English dictionary, and an architect who was inspired by the Italian Renaissance to give us St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Clement Danes and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich down river, and who in turn was a key guidance in the career of Gibbs.

Continue reading How pleasant to know Sir Christopher Wren!

French Country Life: Less Travelled By

If you think about France for a few seconds, what comes to mind? Wine, Fine Food, baguettes, croissants, Paris? Or TGV or Airbus in contemporary terms.

Three weeks in a country, happily, enables you to dig deeper than a quick business trip. There are special traits that will either endear you to a country or possibly irritate you. Just when you think the traits of a country you recall fondly from childhood are gone, you experience the mountains of Southern France and its people.

Continue reading French Country Life: Less Travelled By

Famous, Less Famous and Timeless in France

I have spent a lifetime living out of a suitcase. After fifty years I am still not a good packer – too many things, just in case! A bit like my home office.

It’s been two weeks and four locations so far. I know I have at least 4kg more clothing than I’ll need. And I really should have stuck to two lenses for my camera. Because in two weeks away that’s nearly all I have used. A magnificent set of Tamron twins: The Super Wide Angle 15-30mm f/2.8 VC, and the highly versatile new 28-300mm full-frame megazoom. The versatility of Nikon’s D750 camera has enabled some shots at ISO 6400 that I’d swear are as sharp and noise-free as images I used to sweat over, shot at ISO 800 just a decade ago.

I mention all this because in the last three days I’ve been exposed to hordes of  all-conquering tourists at the Musée D’Orsay and Versailles in and near Paris, a tiny and delightfully picturesque pair of small towns and villages in Sancerre and Apremont-Sur-Allier, and an even smaller village of Couzon some 30km’s further south. In each case I have had to make decisions on what to capture in pictures, what will be of meaning in some future years and to take enough time to let what I see soak in. But it’s more than just the sights.

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As photographers it is so easy to just grab the camera, phone or tablet, point it at something and snap away. In the Musée D’Orsay I saw countless eager sightseers, on a pressed timeline, rush into the venue, grab endless selfies and dash off. They had hardly seen anything. In the famous street scenes people are obsessed with holding up a few buildings (Think Leaning Tower of Pisa outreached-arm shots.) Or they model in front of a famous statue. I saw one Chinese tourist acting out the same pose as the statue directly beside her, art-directed by a complicit partner.

Another method favoured by even more time-pressed tourists just landed on the red-eye from Asia, is to switch on their ageing video camera and walk with it vaguely in front of them, shaking it mercilessly, as they race to keep up with the flag-waving tour group leader, who plods relentlessly onwards. He knows he has to get his hapless protégés to the next commercial shop in order to get his commission.

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It’s not until their return, if then, that they will actually begin to experience what they have seen. In fact most are not looking at all, except through a viewfinder or the screen of their phone/tablet. And in doing so they are failing to absorb that important moment of contemplation, of thought. In June through November this year they will look at the Sky mirror of British contemporary artist, Anish Kapoor, and see it as a simple mirror, unrelated to the wonderful hall of mirrors within the Château, and the other lateral mirror nearer the building, all great contemporary art.
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Copyright, Anish Kapoor, 2015. Link to The Guardian)

At the Musée D’Orsay they will fail to understand the re-imagining of how a post-Impressionist Bonnard thought through the colours, tones and atmosphere of his scenes and portraits, dabbed away sometimes with a brush, sometimes with longer strokes; when to twist and rotate his brush and then when to use the flat knife to build layers of colour to create another effect entirely.

In an exhibition spanning his entire working life in multiple locations his style changed, the brush movement clearly became longer, with more economy. Was he getting tired? Was he better able to express his vision in less detail? His scale seemed to become grander, the Triptique at the exhibition’s end clearly suggests something broader. Without pausing, without reflecting or listening and then reading more later, the whole experience will have been but a multi-coloured blur, akin to a Jimmi Hendrix Album or Oz cover as created by the late Australian artist, Martin Sharp.

The visit to Versailles, something I had somehow managed to miss in 6 decades of trips to France, was even more remarkable for the pace at which people rushed through the great rooms of the Sun King. Versailles is to the west of the Seine river, distinctively not Paris. In the town itself there is a wonderful lazy air. On a baking hot 35 degree June day it was almost the pace of Mexico in summer.

Versailles

The buses were parked in their dozens just outside the gates. As the bus-door opened they rushed out. It’s uphill to gain entrance to the Château, across unevenly cobbled granite-stone grounds. And yet they literally tumbled out and scrambled to get into formation to make a security-crushed entrance through the gates, to disappear in a cacophony of shouting to seek out the Hall of Mirrors and the King’s apartment. Ah, That box can be crossed off!

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(Detail from below the centre of the Hall of Mirrors, looking directly upwards through the chandelier.)

When I asked one of the tolerant room attendants if this was the usual pace of visitors she told me that 90 minutes was a long visit for most. Le Château de Versailles has over 700 rooms and more than 2,000 windows. It took hundreds of years of development and was home to Louis XIV, the Prussians (In the siege of Paris) in the Franco-Prussian War a hundred years later, to Hitler’s occupying generals in the Second Wold War and now the people of the world as tourists. I took six hours and did about 20%. I walked a tiny part of the gardens on a wet Sunday a few days earlier. Never even got to see the amazing Theatre and so many other exhibits.

Just to take in the exterior façades of the building took me ninety minutes, to assess the relationships of the forms of each of the gardens, to detect the patterns of fleurs-de-lis, to take in the perspective and how their shape and form was viewed from the galleries within the Château, how it differed t ground level. All this would have been missed by these busy tourists ‘doing Versailles’.

fleur-de-lis_garden-versailles-fbJDS6600

From arguably the grandest gardens in the world to a series of simple decorative delights at the edge of the Allier river. It’s Two hours drive south of Paris. As it flows north, it leads to the magnificent Loire River. Here lies the village of Apremont-sur-Allier. We encountered an older tourist, mostly European, taking their time. You have to go deep into magnification on Google maps to locate this little gem. Here were cyclists ambling through and stopping for refreshment. They had to contend with a heatwave, so the shade of a large riverside tree and the softness of some newly-grown grass made the perfect afternoon repose. There were rows of flowers trained and grown through multiple decades, simply to delight visitors and the small local population. No wonder it’s rated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The fragrance was magnificent and pervaded the streets. If you made time to pick up the scent and smell the roses.

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Tourism can be experienced in so many different forms. In two weeks away I have started to appreciate the value of looking until I see; of pausing until I hear the subtleties of bird calls unfamiliar to one from the southern hemisphere; of slowing until I smell the roses. At the river-side garden with no walls outside a café hung a simple metal sign, with the words Carpe Diem. Seizing the day was to grasp at how precious time and reflection is in the balance of life.

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Last night, standing at the edge of a small lake in the remotest of villages, Couzon, some 30 minutes west of Moulins at the heart of The Allier, I simply let the beauty of the fading like soak in. The ducks noisily waddled off in protest at my arrival, the trees hardly breathed in the still air. The golden flecks of cloud turned to red and the intensity of the blue at the top of the sky was palpably breathtaking. I reflected on the ability to pace oneself and re-connect. Not with a Facebook friend or to generate an Instagram hit. But to connect our souls and the world we have left, perhaps working to restore something lost in the post-industrial age.

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All text and Photos © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where noted.